Obi Melifonwu: Ready for the Raiders
Photographs by Anthony Geathers
NFL scouts can be a very jaded bunch. Just listen to the coverage of the NFL draft each year, and you will hear talk of offensive linemen with “short arms” and running backs with “high pad levels.” But when Obi Melifonwu stepped up for his test at the 2017 NFL Combine, even the most skeptical scouts did a double take.
At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, the University of Connecticut defensive back certainly had the size that scouts were looking for, but it was his athleticism that drew crowds. His 11 feet, 9 inch standing broad jump drew gasps as the second best leap since 2003. His 44-inch vertical leap topped every athlete at the Combine, and his 4.4 40-yard dash, fifth best ever for a defensive back, solidified him as a rare NFL prospect.
Before he impressed NFL scouts and executives alike with his size and speed as a defensive back, Melifonwu played three different positions in high school, excelling at all three before enrolling at UConn.
“I would definitely have to say running back was 100% my favorite,” Melifonwu says. “I always enjoyed watching running backs. Barry Sanders, the running back for the Detroit Lions definitely fueled that passion, I always looked up to him. “
Transitioning from high school to college, Melifonwu also had to make another transition. From wanting to play running-back to being recruited for defensive positions.
“When I was in high school being recruited, I always thought a college was going to sign me as an offensive player,” he says. “I knew it probably wasn’t going to be running back because of my height, but I thought I’d likely be picked as a receiver. I ended up being recruited by Don Brown, the defensive coordinator at Michigan right now. He saw a future for me as a safety at UConn.”
It turns out that Don Brown had a very prescient view of Melifonwu. As a safety, Melifonwu’s athleticism was magnified on the field. He started to get noticed as an NFL prospect.
“A big moment for me was my senior year when we were playing Tulane, and I had 24 tackles in that game. That was monumental for me because that season I wanted to eclipse 100 tackles. I needed about 8 at the time to get over 100 but ended up getting 24 that game.”
As draft buzz got louder during his senior year, Melifonwu did his best to avoid looking at mock drafts, but he knew that an NFL career was well within his grasp.
“I tried not to look at the draft predictions,” he says. “Initially, I figured when I was entering my senior season that I’d go in the 6th or 7th rounds, since not many people knew who I was. But as the draft got closer, people started telling me I was going to be picked pretty high. I always knew I was going to get drafted. The question was always when, not if.”
Thanks to his brilliant senior season and his Combine performance, Melifonwu was drafted in the second round, 56thoverall, by the Oakland Raiders, Melifonwu looked to veteran NFL leadership to help in his massive transition from a smaller Division I NCAA school to the NFL.
“It was all about being knowledgeable on the game and understanding what was to come,” he says. “I was pretty good on that front, mainly because of the guys that helped me out. One of them was Andrew Adams, who plays for the Giants now, and Byron Jones of the Cowboys.”
While receiving mentorship was a big part of his rookie season, perseverance was another theme. Eager to show the NFL world what he could do, Melifonwu began the year on the Raiders’ injured reserve list for two months.
“It was heartbreaking for me. Anytime you can’t be on the field with your teammates and help them perform it’s super hard and frustrating. But I understood that injuries are a part of the game and that I had to work hard in recovering in order to help my team win.”
For some players, a setback like this would have been devastating, but Melifonwu made the most of the cards he was dealt and reflected on his November NFL debut.
“I would definitely say it was (even better to play) because being out 8 weeks, watching the games go by and not being out there with your teammates is pretty rough. My first game was really special though. We were in Miami, my family flew down from Massachusetts, and they got to watch me make some plays which was pretty cool.”
Looking ahead to the 2018-2019 season, Melifonwu looks forward to what the Raiders future has in store under the triumphant return of head coach Jon Gruden.
“I love the energy Coach Gruden brings,” he says. “He’s always talking about accountability. It’s going to be pretty special to play for him this season.”