This interview is taken from Gridiron Issue XXX, available from here
March 6 may have been the day when Obi Melifonwu persuaded teams he is worthy of becoming the first British-born player to be drafted in a first round. At this year’s combine in Indianapolis nobody leapt higher than his 44-inch vertical jump, nobody could top his 11’9” broad jump and no other safety was quicker over 40 yards. It was a performance that had social media salivating. For him? “I honestly was a little bit disappointed. I was going there to break records, I wanted to set the bar high and do things that nobody else had done.”
Melifonwu had just proven he had more spring than Odell Beckham Jr and more speed than Devin Hester in his prime. Yet watch the video of his vertical jump and you’ll see frustration that he ONLY reached 44 inches. “I definitely expected to have a great showing. I’ve been really athletic since I was a little kid and it was great to be able to showcase that on a national stage. When I jumped I really thought I’d got the record and got 47, but I was happy with my results.” Such self-assurance may not be in keeping with old-fashioned British reserve, though it is on this isle where Melifonwu’s story began.
On April 5, 1994 Tina Melifonwu gave birth to Henry William Obiajulu in Islington’s Whittington Hospital. Three years later the family, which included Obi’s brother, George Michael, and sister, Jennifer Pearl, would relocate to Massachusetts. In the three years he resided in North London, the youngest of the Melifonwu children certainly became accustomed to life in Blighty. “Weetabix is probably my favourite cereal, but I can’t find it anywhere here. Then there’s tea, porridge, the biscuits, fish and chips, and the little granulated sugar cubes.”
The sugar rushes may have ceased across the Atlantic but the Melifonwu kids, who had grown in number with two more boys that had ‘Christian Daniel’ and ‘Charles David’ in their title, had a lot of energy to expand anyway. “I was always fast, I used to run around and play everything,” Obi explains. “We’d always be running around outside, not coming inside, even after the lights went off.”
Naturally America’s most popular pastime soon entered his life. An interest in physical, oval-balled sports had grown from watching rugby back in England and Melifonwu had decided by the age of eight American football was for him. Mum disagreed. “I brought her the sign-up sheet and she didn’t want to sign it because she thought it was a dangerous sport, too violent; she thought I would get hurt. She didn’t sign it for me that year.”
Young Obi would need to be persuasive. “The next year I actually ended up getting two sign-up sheets. She threw the first one away saying it was too dangerous. Then I brought her the second one and she knew I was serious about it and signed it. I’ve played football ever since.”
With his “number-one supporter” on board – even if she thinks her son “hits people too hard” – Melifonwu’s journey took him through Grafton High School and to the University of Connecticut where he was a four-year starter at safety.
A 6’4” frame meant he was too big to follow in the footsteps of his hero Barry Sanders, but wearing his number 20 jersey he developed an appreciation for his namesakes, Deion and Bob, as well as other DBs Melifonwu lists – Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Eric Berry, Richard Sherman. “I’ve studied them and taken bits and pieces of their games and added it to mine,” he notes. “Those are all great players but I think I’ve created my own kind of style of play – being how tall I am, how big I am and being able to play a lot of different spots. I cover tight ends, receivers, I can play in the post and in the box.” Will NFL teams be convinced enough to spend a first-rounder on him? Obi Melifonwu can be very persuasive…just ask his mum.