For Charlotte native Nafees Lyon, growing up a standout high school athlete and playing with his hometown Carolina Panthers on the popular football video game Madden NFL, Charlotte was a natural choice to continue his football and academic career. Now, he wants to lead his team to their first bowl game appearance.
Lyon channeled his love for Madden, the Panthers and football into a successful high school athletic career at Mallard Creek High School. During his career at Mallard Creek, Lyon helped guide the Mavericks to consecutive 4AA State Championship victories and was named Top Defensive Back at Charlotte’s TVO Top 100 in 2014.
When he wasn’t playing football, Lyon ran track for the Mavericks’ 4AA State Champion 4×2 relay team. He also found success in the classroom, making the A/B Honor in both 2013 and 2014.
Lyon’s athleticism and achievements on and off the field did not go unnoticed by college football recruits. Lyon garnered 15 Division 1 college football offers coming out of high school, giving him a myriad of options. However, Lyon decided to stay close to home when he chose Charlotte over other colleges. Lyon cites being close to family and home as well as a sense of pride in his hometown as deciding factors that helped him choose Charlotte.
“Charlotte’s home, so I felt comfortable here. And my parents are big supporter[s] of me, so being here allowed them to attend most of my games,” said Lyon. “It was very humbling and exciting [to get an offer from Charlotte]. Getting an offer from the home team and being part of the foundation [meant a lot].”
In the fall of 2015, Lyon packed his belongings and made the short drive to Charlotte’s campus for his redshirt season. During that season, Lyon trained with the team and laid the foundation for many important, cherished relationships throughout his time at Charlotte.
Lyon began to see playing time in 2016 following his redshirt season. When given the opportunity, Lyon flashed the big-time playmaking potential he exhibited in high school that caught the eye of many college scouts. In the 49ers’ 2016 home-opener versus Elon, he forced a fumble. Additionally, Lyon recorded two-plus tackles in five straight games during the 2016 season.
Everything appeared to be going as planned as Lyon’s play indicated he was on the fast-track to earning a starting or significantly increased role in the upcoming 2017 season. However, Lyon’s progression up the 49er depth chart was suddenly derailed during the 2016-2017 offseason when he suffered a significant injury. The injury sidelined Lyon for the entirety of the 2017 season.
Through lots of hard work and recovery, Lyon was cleared to return to the field in the 2018 season. He credits his family, coaches and teammates for encouraging him and providing support during his recovery efforts.
“I have a lot of people to thank, starting with my family,” said Lyon. “And then I got my friends, my coaches, my trainers and my teammates all in my corner with me while I was on my comeback; just being there for me, helping me and giving me whatever I need to get back on the field.”
Lyon saw a significant increase in playing time during the 2018 season, after recovering from his injury. In 11 games, Lyon tallied seven starts, made 42 tackles, intercepted five passes, led the team with five passes broken up, and forced one fumble.
After a successful 2018 campaign and solid offseason, Lyon earned one of two starting cornerback spots this season. As a senior, earning a starting position means a great deal to Lyon and reminds him of all his hard work down the long road to recovery.
“Starting my senior year means a lot because before I wasn’t playing a lot, and then I had to miss the  season. It was like I had to start all over,” said Lyon. “It’s basically showing me that all my hard work paid off and now I’m looking forward to having a successful season to end my [college] football career.”
Lyon plans on pursuing a career in either the NFL or the CFL. However, if his professional football career plans do not pan out, Lyon intends to pursue a job with his major in Africana Studies and minor in Public Health.
“After graduation, I most definitely am trying to get an opportunity to get to play in the league, if not in the NFL, then the CFL. That is [my] number one goal,” said Lyon. “But if that happens not to work out, I’d just look to be able to find a good-paying job [to] get my life started and get ready for the future.”
Lyon models his game after New England Patriots two-time Pro-Bowl selection and one-time All-Pro selection, cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
“My favorite [NFL] corner is Stephon Gilmore,” said Lyon. “He is a great playmaker and a smart corner. That’s why I watch him [and] pick up things from him to try and make myself better.”
Lyon’s professional football aspirations will have to wait until the end of the 49ers’ season because Lyon has big plans and goals set for his team.
“[As a team], most definitely [I want] to go to a bowl game, which hasn’t been done in program history,” said Lyon. “And [I want] to win a conference championship.”
The 49ers currently sit four games away from bowl eligibility with a 2-1 record on the season. Additionally, the 49ers are currently in a two-way tie for first place in the Conference USA East division.
The road to accomplishing the goals Lyon has set for the 49ers is sure to be riddled with adversity with matchups against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers and last year’s Conference USA runner-up, Middle Tennessee State.
But for the boy who grew up playing Madden as Carolina Panthers players he idolized and the man who overcame a gruesome, devastating injury in his sophomore season, adversity is nothing new.
Behind Lyon’s leadership, resilience and deeply-rooted love for his hometown, the 49ers look to battle through adversity and make program history by bringing a winning season and bowl game appearance to Charlotte.
“I’m looking forward to having a winning season and making a bowl game,” said Lyon.