Author’s Note: This article was first published on NFL Draft Bible on Sports Illustrated. You can find that article here.
Antonio Fletcher polished his NFL resume for years leading up to the moment he declared for the draft. The Lithonia native and football safety went from Arkansas State to Southern Illinois, dominating on both teams along the way.
At Arkansas State in 2018, Fletcher had a reserve role on the secondary and special teams. During that time, he had 19 tackles and one forced fumble. It was the next season that he had a breakout year and only went up from there. He played 11 games as a starter, accruing 58 tackles, four tackles for loss, five pass breakups and one forced fumble.
Fletcher was a stable player for both teams. In his final season with Southern Illinois, he had 32 solo tackles and two tackles for loss. Throughout his college career, he had numerous honors, including Arkansas State Athletic Directors Honor Roll and was named to the Athlon Sports Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference teams.
The only major bump in the road was the pandemic, to which Fletcher took advantage.
During the pandemic, I was out of my garage,” Fletcher said. “The pandemic kind of shook everything up, you could also look at it from a positive point-of-view. Now you could really see who really is creative and who really wants it,”
This mindset, with the support of his friends, family and mentors, is what helped Fletcher get to where he is.
“[I talked] to people, Jerry Jacobs, he plays for the Lions now, William Bradley-King with the Redskins, and the same people that have been talking to me since I first started,” Fletcher said, discussing what helped him in preparation for the draft. He went on to talk about the importance of keeping level-headed. He does, however, know when to give himself credit for his accomplishments.
“The things that I set my mind to, not a lot of people wanna do what I wanna do,” Fletcher said. “It’s the film, the film tells [you] not a lot of people [are] doing what I do,”
Seeing young players have major success in the NFL early in their careers excites Fletcher knowing that could hopefully be him.
“It’s just more motivation and you know that teams actually need people, they’re not just trying to have the best,” Fletcher said. “They actually want guys to come in,”
While sharing the excitement with his fellow brothers, Fletcher also gives flowers to the veterans that came before him. There are a lot of players that Fletcher looks up to, but a few come to mind because of similar size like D.J. Swearinger and Tyran Mathieu – and Damar Hamlin.
“Damar Hamlin, he’s definitely a guy that I watch a lot, but I kinda watch everybody,” Fletcher said. “Damar is just, when I was at Arkansas State, one of the coaches kind of compared me to him,”
Hamlin is someone that Fletcher has a great background with, so it really hit home when he went into cardiac arrest on the field during the Week 17 game versus the Bengals.
“He’s a safety that I used to watch a lot…When he got drafted, it was like a win for me,” Fletcher said. “I mean, that’s my guy, honestly, but it’s a crazy incident, it’s kinda scary,”
It’s been a breath of fresh air for players across the league since Hamlin’s recovery is moving in the right direction, especially for Fletcher, who has that connection with Hamlin.
Fletcher prepared for this moment and has the accolades to prove it. Being able to say, “I declared for the draft.” is a huge accomplishment, but having an article come out saying you’re a draft prospect a year earlier is something different.
Fletcher explained how an article came out about a list of draft prospects and what it meant to him to be on it.
“[It’s] everything I prayed for, it gave me chills,” he said. “[The article] was talking about NFL Draft prospects, and I was one of them. I looked at my coach and I just started crying,”
Though it was an emotional time for him, Fletcher is keeping level-headed and being surrounded by the right support: his family.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Harper said. He went on to talk about how he had coaches, friends, family and other players talk to him about his journey, but he’s shutting out the lip service to focus on himself. “Right now, it’s just good vibes,”
For anyone, especially athletes looking to get their shot in the NFL, Fletcher draws to your ability to take criticism.
“Being able to hear the word ‘no.’” Fletcher said. “There’s a lot of opportunities out here so one person telling you ‘You can’t do it’ shouldn’t close the door on you anyway,”
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