GRAFTON — Playing sports was always important for Ifeatu Melifonwu and his four older siblings, but so were their studies.
Before Melifonwu signed up to play football at Syracuse in 2017, his mother, Tina, made coach Dino Babers promise that her son would focus first on education.
“His mom is so serious about his education that he wasn’t going to sign with a college that didn’t red-shirt him,” Babers said. “It was very obvious after one practice in August that he was one of our top three cornerbacks. I called his mom, and she was like, ‘Remember what you told me …' ”
Melifonwu’s economics degree will help him down the road, but in the immediate future, he has a chance to become one of the highest Massachusetts-born NFL draft picks in the last two decades.
Melifonwu, who turns 22 in May, was born in Boston, lived in Framingham, then moved to Grafton when he was in first grade, eventually graduating from Grafton High in 2017. He grew up rooting for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
A physical, athletic cornerback who goes 6 feet 2 inches, 213 pounds, with an 80-inch wingspan, Melifonwu should hear his name called during the second or third round of next week’s draft, and thinks he has an outside shot of going late in the first round.
Only one NFL player born in Massachusetts has been drafted in the second round over the past decade: Kiko Alonso in 2013. (Ifeatu’s older brother Obi was raised in the state and was a second-round pick in 2017, but he was born in London.) The Bay State’s last first-rounder was Bridgewater’s Marc Colombo in 2002.
“It really just depends on coaches’ and teams’ needs and preferences, but I do feel like I’m one of the top guys, if not the top corner, and deserve to be in the first round,” Melifonwu said.
And though Obi has struggled to make an impact or find a natural position in three-plus NFL seasons, Ifeatu will enter the NFL as a more polished prospect.
Ifeatu, five years younger than Obi, benefited from having his brother go through the process first and serve as a mentor.
“My first college exposure was because it was the same recruiter as Obi,” Ifeatu said. “Obi helped get eyes on me, then once I got two offers, they kind of started pouring in.”
There is no whiff of a sibling rivalry.
“I feel I’m a better athlete, but I think he’s better at sports, if that makes sense,” said Obi, now hoping to stick with the 49ers after stints with the Raiders and Patriots. “In high school, his development as a football player was way more advanced than it was for me.
“His football IQ is better than mine, his route recognition is better than mine, his play recall is better than mine. He’s just more advanced, just a better all-around football player.”
Ifeatu learned at a younger age the importance of film study. Obi said Ifeatu is already studying film of some of the NFL’s biggest cornerbacks and receivers.
“He would watch film in high school, and he would tell me about plays and formations that were run before,” Obi said. “Now he’s looking at Jalen Ramsey game film, going up against DeAndre Hopkins. I just personally don’t think you’re going to find that kind of work ethic in another player.”
It’s a work ethic instilled by Tina, a Nigerian immigrant who moved the family first to London and then Massachusetts. She raised the five children mostly by herself while criss-crossing central Massachusetts working as an in-home nurse.
Tina made sure that Ifeatu didn’t just go through the motions in the classroom at Syracuse. Ifeatu hopes to use his economics degree down the road as a financial planner or small-business owner.
“There are definitely a lot of guys that do majors with less workload, but I honestly didn’t want to do that because I want to be able to use [the degree] after I’m done,” Ifeatu said. “And I knew my mom wouldn’t let me do that.”
Added Obi, “My mom is definitely the one that instilled the drive in us. Seeing her wake up every day, work a double shift, barely see her family, but she finds a way to get it done and I think it helped us out.”
Ifeatu’s work ethic helped him thrive at Syracuse, where he started 19 games over three seasons. “Iffy,” as they called him, was always putting in extra work on the field and in the film room.
“I have a rule that I can’t leave the practice field until all my players are off,” said Babers. “Iffy is one of those guys, you call home and your wife is mad and you say, ‘I can’t leave because Iffy is still practicing.’ ”
Melifonwu had only three interceptions at Syracuse but still earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl. Per Pro Football Focus, he shined in goal-line pass-coverage drills and was one of the biggest standouts of the week.
“The thing he proved most here in Mobile was his versatility,” said Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, a former Patriots scout. “He has the speed and athleticism to cover receivers on the perimeter, as well as the size and strength to handle tight ends.
“Some of his best work came in one-on-one periods against the tight end group. You don’t get a good feel for just how big he is until you get right up on him. He is certainly one of the more unique matchup defenders in this year’s draft class.”
The cornerback draft class is deep, but Melifonwu should be high on the board for teams that use big, physical press cornerbacks, like the 49ers, Jets, Seahawks, and Rams. Melifonwu’s agent, Sean Stellato of Marblehead, said he ran a 4.44 in the 40, and recorded a vertical jump of 41.5 inches and a broad jump of 11-2 at his pro day, skills that should translate well to special teams.
Draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic has Melifonwu ranked as the 10th-best cornerback in the draft but the 57th prospect overall.
“He’s been interviewing with everybody, all 32 teams,” said Stellato. “It’s been pretty intense. He only started in 19 games, but if you stack him up against the top cornerbacks, he made as many pass breakups as any of those guys.”
Melifonwu is going to spend draft night with his family in Grafton. If all goes well, he’ll add his name to a very short list of first- or second-round draft picks from Massachusetts.
“Obi came out from UConn as, like, a fifth-/sixth-rounder, performed well at the Senior Bowl, did great at the Combine, raised his stock to a second-rounder,” Ifeatu said. “So it’s like, if he can do it, I know I can do it.”