Just a few days after setting the football landscape aflame with his off-the-charts performance at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, safety Obi Melifonwu was back in the gym.
The former UConn star was in his hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts, getting in some evening cardio at the local Anytime Fitness chain. He also greeted some friends of his high school-aged younger brother Ifeatu. After all, it’s not every day you see a 6-foot-4, 225-pound NFL draft prospect on the treadmill next to you at your neighborhood gym.
Melifonwu said he doesn’t get stopped around town these days as much as one would think — and he said, “I really wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t want people to treat me differently.”
But given his sudden fame, Melifonwu never can go full stealth these days.
“I really don’t think I’m famous. Last month has definitely been a whirlwind,” Melifonwu said. “I kind of expected it. I’ve been playing football since the age of 9, and I’ve always wanted to go to the NFL, and I knew if I did everything right, it would work out.”
Yo Murphy, head trainer at ASPI Training, thought his client would achieve an 11-foot-7-inch broad jump and a 43-inch vertical leap, although Murphy later wrote down “45” because of Melifonwu’s unshakable declaration he’d get there. Melifonwu cleared the broad jump with an 11-9, hit 44 in the vertical, and ran a 4.40 40-yard dash that seemed inscrutable for someone with his frame. In a matter of hours, the once lightly recruited high school star was an overnight sensation from coast to coast.
“I was hyped,” Murphy said.
Back home, Melifonwu’s high school coach — the one who first introduced Melifonwu to the only Division I FBS school that would extend a scholarship offer — shrugged at the results.
“His ceiling is unlimited,” said Chris McMahon, Melifonwu’s defensive coordinator at Grafton High, who since has taken over as head coach. “Athletically, obviously, he’s off the charts. And football-wise, he just keeps getting better. Whatever team ends up drafting him is getting a unique guy.”
Melifonwu put up impressive numbers during his 2016 campaign with UConn, earning first team All-AAC honors with a team-leading 118 tackles and four interceptions. Some of his best performances included a two-interception game against Temple, with both picks coming in his own end zone. And he had 24 tackles against Tulane. Now, he’s ranked as the 45th overall prospect in the 2017 NFL draft by ESPN draft expert Todd McShay.
Born in the Islington borough of London to Nigerian-born parents before settling in Massachusetts for most of his life, there’s a disarming side to Melifonwu. For one, he won’t deny his oldest brother Michael’s claim that he bakes one heck of a cookie — “I’ve got a sweet tooth,” he laughs. For another, he credits his low profile to his mother, Tina, a nurse who forged a tight bond with her four sons.
“She’s definitely been my everything,” Melifonwu said. “Everything you see in me was instilled by her — my patience, the humility I have, the relationship I have with Christ. She’s one of the [things] that drives me. I just want to make her proud. She’s sacrificed a lot for our family.”
Five years ago, Melifonwu was a high school recruit who few wanted. But former UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown heard about Melifonwu through longtime friend McMahon. So in spring 2011, Brown came to Grafton’s weight room to see what all the fuss was about. Brown, now the defensive coordinator at Michigan, puts a premium on length, speed and versatility, and Melifonwu had all of those qualities. Melifonwu jumped nearly 40 inches in the vertical and ran the 40 in the high 4.5s. Melifonwu’s first Division I FBS offer came a day later from UConn, and his commitment came soon after.
Nine months went by with no other scholarship offers, leaving a bitter taste that still lingers with Melifonwu nearly six years later.
“I think I still have a chip on my shoulder now, being that it was my only offer,” Melifonwu said after wrapping up his pro day last month, where scouts from nearly 20 NFL teams were on hand. “Now, NFL scouts and NFL coaches are looking at me, and I think coaches around the country are thinking, ‘We really missed out on this guy.'”
Melifonwu’s recruitment isn’t out of the ordinary for high school athletes from central Massachusetts, according to Brown, a native of Spencer, just a few towns over from Grafton.
“They’re going to be raw athletically,” Brown said, “but at the same time there’s a lot of good coaches in central Mass that I’m connected to.
“So if I pop in to a specific school and they go, ‘You need to check out this guy,’ they know I’m going to do it. That’s half the battle. The athletes are there; you’ve just got to be willing.”
But that doesn’t fully explain how so many schools passed on Melifonwu, who had a lengthy highlight reel of more than 50 career touchdowns at Grafton and unique versatility; he sometimes got in a three-point stance as a safety, and he started out as a quarterback on offense.
“You could see the athletic ability even as an eighth-grader,” McMahon said. “It was just one of those things where he flew under the radar for whatever reason.”
And, perhaps, that’s what has kept his profile so low. Former UConn defensive backs coach Anthony Poindexter recalls being “shocked” by Melifonwu’s humility when he first arrived in Storrs in 2012 (Melifonwu redshirted that first year at UConn).
“He wasn’t as cocky and confident as a person with that kind of talent and skill set should be,” said Poindexter, who moved on to Purdue in January after UConn parted ways with head coach Bob Diaco. “It was almost like he didn’t know he was that good. I had to convince him he was going to be great.”
Just how great remains to be seen.