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FOXBOROUGH — Obi Melifonwu decided it was his dream to play in the NFL 15 years ago, when he was 9. He became an avid Patriots fan, idolizing those who molded the early dynastic years in Foxborough. Melifonwu, who leaned toward the defensive side of the ball, studied the play of Lawyer Milloy and then Rodney Harrison like a hawk.
Less than seven years ago at the age of 17, Melifonwu sat in the library at Grafton High School and became the first player in program history to be accepted by a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team when he signed with the University of Connecticut. Clocking in 5 pounds shy of 200 as a high school senior, Melifonwu excelled on the gridiron as a running back and defensive back (he rushed for 320 yards in a game), on the track team in the long jump and triple jump, and as a forward on the basketball team.
Last Sunday at his current age of 24, Melifonwu attended his first Patriots game. Though he grew up less than hour away from Gillette Stadium, moving to the United States from London at age 3, he’d never witnessed his favorite team play live.
After spending his first professional season and the start of this one in Oakland, Melifonwu and the Raiders parted ways on Oct. 23 when the safety was waived off injured reserve. He met with New England three days later, one of a handful of teams that expressed interest in the 2017 late second-round pick. On Nov. 4, he enjoyed watching the Patriots dispose of the Packers on Sunday night.
A day later, Melifonwu and the Patriots came to terms on a two-year deal, and on Tuesday the signing was made official.
Melifonwu was coming home.
“I got a chance to go to the Green Bay Packers game,” said Melifonwu on Friday. “It’s been a dream my whole life to go to a Patriots game, so I’m glad I got to fill that before I got to play.”
It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for Melifonwu, but his homecoming has established one thing for certain: he is no longer alone. If his first 18 months in and around the league felt frustrating and aimless, Melifonwu can take solace in his current reality, which places him a manageable car ride away from a home-cooked meal.
“Everybody was excited, especially my family,” said Melifonwu. “Being able to drive 40 minutes to home is something that makes me happy, makes my family happy, and definitely makes my friends happy.
“Growing up here, I’ve been a huge Patriots fan. Everybody’s just ready to watch me play.”
That’s not to mention the number of Grafton High graduates peppered across the region.
“The teachers, the students, just the whole aura of Grafton High was special,” Melifonwu recalled.
Melifonwu stayed true to his local roots and attended UConn. Playing primarily safety, with some spurts at cornerback, Melifonwu missed just one game in four years with the Huskies. He racked up 351 career tackles and was named first-team All-American Athletic Conference his senior season, in which he snared four of his eight collegiate interceptions.
Melifonwu’s remarkable athleticism turned heads at the NFL Combine, but his time with the Raiders featured far more turbulence than was expected. Graduating with degrees in sociology and family studies, Melifonwu had no trouble getting along with the folks in Oakland, but his body wouldn’t cooperate.
He suffered a variety of lower-body ailments during his time on the West Coast, limiting him to just five games and 34 defensive snaps in his rookie season and none to date in 2018.
Yet New England sees vast amounts of untapped potential in Melifonwu, a physical specimen who could see time at cornerback down the road as well as on burly tight ends at strong safety. The 6-foot-4-inch, 224-pounder will likely play on the special teams unit, too.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it was too soon to indicate whether he’ll try Melifonwu at corner, but it’s certainly a possibility. Melifonwu expressed a willingness to help the team wherever needed.
Said Belichick, “He has good size. He’s smart. He learns quickly. He’s athletic. We’ll see what he can do.”
Veteran safety Duron Harmon offered further praise.
“I talked to him,” said Harmon. “He sits right with [assistant coach] Steve [Belichick] behind us. You can tell he’s a smart guy. He’s doing a good job of asking questions, trying to pick up the defense and the terminology as fast as he can.
“The good thing is he has guys like Devin [McCourty], Patrick [Chung], myself who have been in this system for some time now, who are more than willing to help him and bring him along as fast as we can.”
Melifonwu reports he’s feeling fully healthy and has nothing but good things to say about those who comprise the team he used to fervently cheer on from the couch.
Could it get any better?
“It’s been great” he said. “It just seemed like a good fit — the coaches, the players, everything they’re doing here. I wanted to be a part of a winning team. Vets are bringing me along; younger guys are bringing me along. It’s just a great environment to be a part of.”
Owen Pence can be reached at email@example.com.