As offensive lineman Atonio Mafi transitions from UCLA to the NFL, he is sharing his journey with Times staff writer Ben Bolch through a weekly diary leading up to the draft April 27. This week, Mafi discusses his dream of hearing his name called in the draft.
I’ve thought about the moment a lot. It always unfolds the same way.
I’m sitting at home with my mom, dad and older brother back in the Bay Area, just the four of us like it’s always been. We all share in the excitement when the phone rings. I answer, knowing what’s coming next. I’ve been drafted by an NFL team.
It’s no longer just a dream. I’ve made it.
I hug everyone in my family, gripping them tightly. They were there with me every step of the way. This isn’t about just me but all of us.
What round I get taken in the draft doesn’t matter. Neither does the team. Of course, the earlier the better, and I’d love nothing more than to get picked by my hometown San Francisco 49ers. But the only thing I really need is a chance.
Playing in the NFL was a dream long before I played my first game for UCLA in 2018. Growing up in Shoreview, just a short drive from the old Candlestick Park, I was naturally drawn to the 49ers. Hearing stories about Joe Montana and watching linebacker Patrick Willis hold things down in the middle of the field made me an instant fan. We always watched the games and had tons of 49ers gear around the house.
I finally got to see them play in 2015. David Bakhtiari, the Green Bay Packers left tackle who graduated from my high school in San Mateo, left me and my teammates tickets to a game against San Francisco at Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers lost, but I had an awesome time.
Even though I earned a scholarship to UCLA, I never truly thought of myself as an NFL player until a pep talk from coach Chip Kelly early last year. I had played guard the previous two years after a switch from defensive line, even starting three games in 2021. But there was something holding me back from becoming a dominant player. My weight.
Coach told me that if I dropped the weight, I’d have a chance at playing in the NFL. So I radically changed my diet, came in for extra workouts before practice and went from 377 pounds to 340, after having peaked at 411 earlier in my career. So many people helped, from the strength coaches to our team nutritionist, Ross Shumway. Even teammates who kidded by saying they missed the old ‘Nio kept me going.
My new body made such a difference. In practice, I didn’t drag anymore. In games, I was able to make downfield blocks for the first time. I started every game and was picked second-team All-Pac-12 by conference coaches. We had our best season since my arrival, finishing 9-4 after a heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.
A few days later, I headed across the country to start training for the draft. I’m staying at a resort in Pensacola Beach, Fla., working out six days a week at a nearby training facility. After showing last season that I can be a superb run blocker, I want to prove that I can also pass block at the NFL level, especially since so many offenses are going toward the Air Raid.
My next chance to impress NFL scouts comes Thursday at the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas. It’s going to be a mini-UCLA reunion. I get to play with quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and wide receivers Kazmeir Allen and Jake Bobo. I can’t wait to see them again and share the field one more time.
It’s also going to be an important reminder of something I always told myself while in college, whether I was having a great day or struggling. Getting to the NFL is what I’ve been praying for and working toward all these years.
Now I’m in position to really make it happen. So why not give it my all? That’s exactly what I’m going to do for the next three months before taking that phone call.