Boston native, Grafton star, Syracuse standout, Stellato Sports client. What does life with the Detroit Lions hold in store for Ifeatu Melifonwu?

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“I was born in Boston and lived in Framingham until first grade, when I moved to South Grafton, near Worcester,” says Ifeatu Melifonwu, a recent graduate of Syracuse University, a 2020 AP second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) cornerback, and — most recently — a third-round draft pick of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. “I’m the youngest of five, and my older siblings played football. Growing up, you always want to be like them. I played my first year in third grade, and I was really good. After that year, I just fell in love with it.”

To say Melifonwu, 22, was “good” from an early age would be a major understatement. At Grafton High School, he played at six different positions during a career that ended with an appearance in the state Division 3 Super Bowl championship game.

After redshirting his first year on campus at Syracuse in 2017, Melifonwu rose steadily up the depth chart: playing extensively in 2018; starting eight games as a sophomore in 2019; and becoming an NFL prospect last fall.

That success — and the fact that he graduated from Syracuse with an economics degree in December — led Melifonwu to declare for the NFL Draft with a season of college eligibility remaining. “My mindset going into last season was, ‘I’m going to play like this is my last year and then look at the situation at the end,’” Melifonwu says. “I didn’t want to go into the season thinking about having an extra year. And I had a really good year. After the season, I started hearing from agents about what they heard from scouts. I talked it over with my brother (Obi, a four-year NFL veteran) and my mom, and we decided it was time.”

The process of preparing for the draft — and performing for scouts — was not easy in the COVID-19 era. But, thanks to his family’s support and his growth as a player throughout his high school and college careers, Melifonwu is ready for his next stop: Detroit.

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

‘We Do It Because We Love It’

Though Melifonwu has been playing football for most of his life, he avoided a trap that many star athletes fall into: focusing on a single sport. At Grafton High — aside from playing option quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive back, and both kick and punt returner on the football team — he played basketball all four years, ran track as a freshman and sophomore, and played lacrosse as a junior.

“Playing other sports really allowed me to be a kid and saved my love for football. When you play one sport year-round early on, you might lose the love for it. It can feel like a job, and that’s not why we start playing a sport,” Melifonwu says. “We do it because we love it.”

He believes that playing different sports helped his football skills — and his interpersonal abilities. “Playing different sports gives you different skillsets, different things you can transition to football,” Melifonwu says. “You also make new friends — a different sport can mean a whole different friend group. It’s important to connect and meet new people.”

The biggest wildcard in these efforts, though, was lacrosse — a sport he had never played before going out for the team at Grafton.

“I liked lacrosse a lot,” Melifonwu says. “After my sophomore year, I stopped running track and wanted something else to do in spring. A lot of my friends played lacrosse, and our school was really good (Grafton played in the state championship during all four years Melifonwu attended). My friends convinced me to do it — and, after two weeks, I was on varsity and getting playing time.”

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

Family and friendships are important to the recent NFL draftee. Melifonwu says that family support — particularly from his mother, three brothers, and a sister — has been crucial in his growth.

“My family has been really supportive of me — they’ve been my support system since I started playing. They always want the best for me,” he says. “If I get a pass break-up, they tell me it should’ve been a pick. If I get a pick, it should’ve been a pick-six. They’re always wanting me to be better and to do better.”

One of Melifonwu’s older brothers, Obi, has been particularly helpful in recent years. Obi played football at the University of Connecticut (351 tackles, eight interceptions in four seasons) and became a second-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2017. Since, he’s battled injuries while spending time with the New England Patriots and, now, the San Francisco 49ers.

But as Ifeatu began to consider his college career in late 2016, Obi was there to help guide his decision making. Ifeatu had scholarship offers from nine schools, including Michigan and Boston College.

“Obi taught me to pick the school that’s best for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big name: pick the school where you feel most comfortable with the coaches, the players, and the scheme,” Melifonwu says. “Another thing he told me to consider was the roster: you don’t want to come in when there are a lot of young guys ahead of you at your position. When I looked at Syracuse, there were a lot of older guys at defensive back, so I knew that I’d have a real shot at starting in a year or two.”

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

‘Looking at the Full Menu’

Melifonwu arrived at Syracuse in summer 2017 and redshirted his first season (sitting out the year without using a year of eligibility).

“Redshirting that first year was huge for me,” he says. “It helped me get bigger and stronger. It helped get my mind right with coverages, learning our defense, and learning other offenses’ formations and route concepts. At every next level, the game gets faster, so redshirting helped slow everything down a little bit.”

Not that there weren’t highlights that season. Not only did Melifonwu excel in the classroom, earning school and ACC academic honors, but in what Melifonwu calls the “biggest team moment” of his time in orange, Syracuse upset No. 2 Clemson.

During the 2018 season, Melifonwu appeared in nine games as a reserve, notching 15 tackles in a season that was capped by a 34-18 victory over West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando. That redshirt freshman season also provided Melifonwu’s biggest personal moment at Syracuse.

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

In an Oct. 20 game vs. North Carolina, he saw his first real game action. “I played almost the whole game because the starting cornerback got injured in the first quarter,” Melifonwu says. “I ended up with four pass break-ups (PBUs) in the game and helped us win in overtime. When I came in they kept throwing it at me, but I was able to hold my own.”

That performance — followed by a six-tackle, two-PBU performance the following week against N.C. State — set Melifonwu on course toward a starting role in 2019 and 2020.

What put him on track to forego his final year of college eligibility and declare for the 2021 NFL Draft? Melifonwu gives a lot of credit to his 2020 position coach, Chip West.

“In 2020, we got a new defensive coordinator and a new position coach,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from all of my coaches, but Coach West really upped my game mentally. He called it ‘looking at the full menu’: down-and-distance, the formation, field position. He also helped my game by improving playing off-man and improving my backpedal.”

The results showed: after registering 33 tackles and 14 PBUs in his first two seasons combined, Melifonwu notched 55 stops (three for loss, one sack), nine PBUs, and an interception in 2020 — thrusting himself into the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft.

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‘A Once-in-a-Lifetime Thing’

After declaring for the draft, Melifonwu participated in the Jan. 30 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and trained at Yo Murphy Performance in Tampa, Fla. He had three tackles in the Senior Bowl and, as one of a few redshirt juniors to participate, improved his draft stock according to scouts (many see him as a second- or third-round selection).

He also chose Sean Stellato of Woburn-based Stellato Sports as his agent — the same decision brother Obi made four years ago. “Sean is a really hard worker, and you can see it,” Melifonwu says. “A lot of times, agents aren’t working as hard as they say they are. Sean really goes to bat for me and my brother. I talk to him every day. My family loves him, as well.”

Stellato is thrilled to have a second Melifonwu in his client camp. “Ifeatu was one of the fastest rising players in this year’s NFL Draft,” he says. “His height, weight, speed, and overall athleticism made him one of the most preeminent players at his position in the 2021 draft.”

Melifonwu was one of three Syracuse defensive backs — safeties Andre Cisco (who was also selected in the third round by Jacksonville) and Trill Williams are the others — to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. “We’re very close friends. I talk to Andre and Trill once a day — or every other day, at worst,” he says. “It would mean a lot to all of us to fulfill our dreams to get drafted in the same year. We’re rooting for each other along every step.”

The hardest thing about being a 2021 NFL prospect is what you might expect: the trials created by a world interrupted by COVID-19.

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

“Aside from our pro day, there are no in-person workouts,” Melifonwu says. “Luckily, I had the Senior Bowl, so they saw me play. There are no visits to get familiar with the coaches, to see them in person — so they can know who you are.”

But what scouts and draft prognosticators (who rank Melifonwu anywhere from the fourth best cornerback in the draft to the 12th) do see are his size — nearly six-foot-three, 213 pounds, with an 80-inch wingspan — and speed. His fastest 40-yard dash early in his career at Syracuse was a 4.5, and scouts estimate he’d be slightly faster now.

“My biggest strengths are my physicality and tackling as a corner, my size, my length, and my coverage ability in both man and zone,” Melifonwu says. “I had two different defensive coordinators, so I’ve played a lot of different coverages: man, cover-2, cover-3. Some teams are also talking about me playing different positions — safety, nickel — so I bring a little bit of position flex as well.”

Melifonwu isn’t picky when asked about a dream situation in terms of which team drafts him, though he grew up a Patriots fan. “My dream would be to go in the first round. Since I started playing and then started thinking about the draft, that’s been my dream,” he says. “But, as far as a team, I’ll be happy anywhere I go.”

And though Melifonwu’s off-field activities are what you might expect from a 22-year-old football star — hanging out with friends, playing “Call of Duty,” watching the “I Am Athlete” podcast on YouTube — he spends a lot of time watching film of NFL defensive backs, trying to glean any tips and tricks he can.

“I watch a lot of different DBs, usually bigger corners,” Melifonwu says. “Jalen Ramsey, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore — I love watching them. They all do different things. Sherman is one of the smartest corners ever. Ramsey is big and physical but also can cover really well. Gilmore was Defensive Player of the Year. He’s crazy good in coverage — the things he does in press, how he cuts off angles.”

Image courtesy of Ifeatu Melifonwu/SES Sports

“Aside from our pro day, there were no in-person workouts,” Melifonwu says. “Luckily, I had the Senior Bowl, so they saw me play. There were no visits to get familiar with the coaches, to see them in person — so they can know who you are.”

But what scouts and draft prognosticators (who ranked Melifonwu anywhere from the fourth best cornerback in the draft to the 12th) do see are his size — nearly six-foot-three, 213 pounds, with an 80-inch wingspan — and speed. His fastest 40-yard dash early in his career at Syracuse was a 4.5, and scouts, rightfully, estimated he’d be slightly faster now as Melifonwu clocked in a 4.4 on his Pro Day.

“My biggest strengths are my physicality and tackling as a corner, my size, my length, and my coverage ability in both man and zone,” Melifonwu says. “I had two different defensive coordinators, so I’ve played a lot of different coverages: man, cover-2, cover-3. Some teams are also talking about me playing different positions — safety, nickel — so I bring a little bit of position flex as well.”

Melifonwu wasn’t picky when asked about a dream situation in terms of which team drafts him, though he grew up a Patriots fan. “My dream would be to go in the first round. Since I started playing and then started thinking about the draft, that’s been my dream,” he says. “But, as far as a team, I’ll be happy anywhere I go.”

And though Melifonwu’s off-field activities are what you might expect from a 22-year-old football star — hanging out with friends, playing “Call of Duty,” watching the “I Am Athlete” podcast on YouTube — he spends a lot of time watching film of NFL defensive backs, trying to glean any tips and tricks he can.

“I watch a lot of different DBs, usually bigger corners,” Melifonwu says. “Jalen Ramsey, Richard Sherman, Marshawn Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore — I love watching them. They all do different things. Sherman is one of the smartest corners ever. Ramsey is big and physical but also can cover really well. Gilmore was Defensive Player of the Year. He’s crazy good in coverage — the things he does in press, how he cuts off angles.”

Early indications are that the League will be watching Melifonwu right away as well. Sports Illustrated, among others, have gushed over his selection:

“What a steal for the Lions,” they reacted. “Melifonwu has the size and athleticism required to match up with physical wideouts. He is best in press-man, getting his hands-on receivers. Do not be surprised if he is a rookie starter in Detroit.”

As he stands on the cusp of joining the Lions to begin what he hopes will be a Hall of Fame career — when asked what his dream NFL career would look like are winning, he mentions winning at least one Super Bowl ring and making the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Melifonwu understood that he should enjoy the time before taking on the challenge of creating a successful NFL career. He doesn’t have to look far to see how road blocks can pop up.

“Even though it was a stressful process, handling all the interviews and all the things I have to do, Obi kept it in my head to try to enjoy the process because you don’t get it back. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Melifonwu says. “Also, he made it clear: don’t take anything for granted. He’s been injured a little and has bounced around to a few different teams, so he knows how easily it can be taken away.”

His post-football vision also is thoughtful.

“After my career, I’d like to use my economics major and become a financial advisor for professional athletes,” Melifonwu says. “A lot of guys go broke after just a couple years in and out of the league. I want to be of assistance that way.”

With his new opportunity awaiting him in Detroit — and the chance to dream about how things could work out in the NFL — Melifonwu adds with a laugh, “If I’m lucky enough to play 10 or 12 years, though, I might not have to work.”

Image: Danny Direct | Wardrobe: The Label