UCLA’s Atonio Mafi 2023 NFL draft diary: Dream nearing reality

As offensive lineman Atonio Mafi transitions from UCLA to the NFL, he shares his journey with Times contributor Ben Bolch through a weekly journal leading up to the April 27 draft. This week, Mafi talks about his dream of having his name drafted.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the moment. It’s always the same.

I’m sitting at home in the Bay Area with my mom, dad and older brother, just the four of us as usual. We all share the excitement when the phone rings. I answer, knowing what’s next. I was drafted by an NFL team.

It’s not just a dream anymore. I made it

I hug and hold everyone in my family. They were with me every step of the way. It’s not just about me, it’s about all of us.

It doesn’t matter which round I get in the draft. Neither does the team. The sooner the better, and I would love nothing more than to be selected 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 old Candlestick Park, I was naturally drawn to the 49ers. Hearing stories about Joe Montana and watching linebacker Patrick Willis hold things down in midfield made me an instant fan. We always watched the games and had loads of 49ers gear around the house.

In 2015 I finally got to see them play. David Bakhtiari, the Green Bay Packers left tackle who graduated from 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 a great time.

Even though I received a scholarship to UCLA, I never really saw myself as an NFL player until coach Chip Kelly spoke words of encouragement early last year. I had played guard for the past two years after a move from the defensive line and even started three games in 2021. But something kept me from becoming a dominant player. My weight.

The coach told me that if I reduced the weight, I would have a chance to play in the NFL. So I radically changed my diet, added pre-workout workouts, and went from 377 pounds to 340 pounds after peaking at 411 pounds earlier in my career. So many people have helped, from the strength coaches to our team nutritionist, Ross Shumway. Even teammates who joked by saying they missed old ‘Nio kept me going.

My new body has made such a difference. In practice, I no longer dragged. In games I was able to do downfield blocks for the first time. I started every game and was selected by the conference coaches as the second-team All-Pac-12. We had our best season since I arrived, finishing 9-4 after a heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh at the Sun Bowl.

A few days later, I traveled across the country to begin draft practice. I live at a resort in Pensacola Beach, Florida and train six days a week at a nearby training facility. After showing last season that I can be an excellent run blocker, I want to prove that I can block at the NFL level, especially since so many offenses are toward the air attack.

UCLA's Atonio Mafi on the field against USC in November 2018.

UCLA’s Atonio Mafi on the field against USC in November 2018.

(Jesus Ramírez / UCLA)

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 meeting. 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 once more.

It will also be an important reminder of something I used to tell myself throughout college, whether I was having a great day or struggling. Getting into the NFL is what I’ve been praying for and working towards all these years.

Now I am able to really make it happen. So why not give it your all? That’s exactly what I’ll be doing for the next three months before I answer that call.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2023-02-01/atonio-mafi-nfl-draft-diary-visualizing-moment UCLA’s Atonio Mafi 2023 NFL draft diary: Dream nearing reality

Emma Bowman

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