Atonio Mafi NFL draft diary: Shrine Bowl features high notes, on and off the field

UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi sprays water on his head during a game against Bowling Green
UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi sprays water on his head during the second half of a game against Bowling Green on Sept. 3, 2022, in Pasadena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

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 being reunited with his college teammates at the Shrine Bowl.

There are some things you know you’re going to have to do to make the NFL as an offensive lineman.

Show you can handle an all-out blitz. Hold your block in passing downs. Master the concepts of a complex offense.

Then there’s the unexpected. Last week, I broke into song while meeting with executives from one NFL team.


UCLA offensive lineman Atonio Mafi is sharing his journey to the NFL draft through a weekly diary leading up the event April 27.

Feb. 1, 2023

Yep, it’s true. I unleashed my best a cappella version of The Temptations’ “My Girl.”

I have to say, I think I killed it.

The surprising moment came as part of interviews with all 32 NFL teams during the week of the Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas.

Most of the questions were the same, focusing on my experiences and knowledge of the game. Then came the curveball. One executive asked what I liked to do outside of football.

When I mentioned singing, he put me on the spot by asking me to sing right there. I knew I had to go for it. This was no time to hold back.

I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it’s cold outside,
I’ve got the month of May.

After belting out a few bars, I looked around to see what they thought. They asked why I had stopped.


I was like, “Oh, I’ll sing the rest of it when you draft me.” Everybody just laughed.

It was a fun week. The interviews were pretty draining, but I always kept in mind that even though it might have been the 32nd time I told my life story, it was a team’s first time getting to talk to me. So I stayed upbeat and made sure I answered every question as thoughtfully as possible.

The best part of the week was being reunited with my old college teammates. Guys from other teams joked about how there were so many Bruins that the game should have been called the UCLA Bowl. We had practically half the starting offense back together between myself, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, offensive lineman Jon Gaines II and wide receivers Kazmeir Allen and Jake Bobo.

Jon had to play on the East team because he was a late addition to the rosters, which was a bummer because I didn’t get to hang out with him as much. But eating meals, practicing and staying at the same hotel with everybody was a reminder of how much I appreciated each of them.

UCLA’S Atonio Mafi leans forward and runs during a game
Former UCLA lineman Atonio Mafi recently participated in the Shine Bowl.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Dorian and I joked about how I went from trying to get to him in practice as a defensive lineman to making sure no one touched him my last three years after moving to the other side of the ball.


Kaz always liked to remind me of all those touchdowns he scored against me when our high school teams played on his way to setting a California record.

Jon was so welcoming when I made the transition to offensive line, I’ll always remember him helping me understand the playbook. He also cooks a mean burger that’s way better than In-N-Out.

Jake immediately befriended everybody in the one year he played with us because he was such a good dude. We called him “Old Reliable” because he was always around the sticks getting that first down whenever we needed it.

We did a lot of fun stuff before the game. Some of us went to see Dorian’s little sister play flag football and we got to dance on the field at Allegiant Stadium with kids from the Shriners Hospital.

There’s no need to rehash what feels like another lost UCLA football season. Instead, let’s examine how Chip Kelly and the Bruins can improve the program.

Dec. 31, 2022

It felt like we were all back at UCLA, especially when coaches Chip Kelly and Tim Drevno popped out of nowhere while I was leading the team out of the tunnel before the game. They told me one NFL team really liked what it saw in me, though I want to keep its identity a secret out of respect to the team. I had been elected one of the team captains earlier in the week based on how I was practicing and the way I was conducting myself.

We won the game 12-3, and I was selected the best interior lineman. We rotated players a lot, so it was kind of hard to get in a rhythm, but when I was in there, I made my plays count.


It would be awesome to keep playing with one or more of my UCLA teammates in the NFL, but I know the odds are against it. So we made sure to really absorb every moment we had during the week, knowing it could be our last together. I came in with Dorian and Kaz back in 2018 and we all fought through so much over our five years to get the team on track while so many others came and left.

We talked about that before the game. It was a crazy ride. It’s only right that we finished it together.