May 12, 2008
Most Samoans don’t grow up with grandiose dreams of playing in the National Football League. In fact most natives of the small island country, which is located approximately midway between Hawaii and New Zealand, are much more enamored with a game that’s native to the area - rugby.
This was also the case with 49ers defensive end Isaac Sopoaga who had never played football until he was 17 years old. At that point, the local high school coach who had come to Sopoaga’s house to visit with two of his brothers decided to also recruit Sopoaga. Although reluctant at first, Sopoaga decided to give football a shot. He would quickly find out that he made the right decision as he went on to win defensive player of the year honors in his senior season.
Sopoaga continued his football career at the College of the Canyons in Southern California, setting the national junior college record for sacks in a season with 31 in 2000. He would then transfer to the University of Hawaii where he was an all-conference selection in 2002, and with just five years of football experience under his belt, Sopoaga was selected by the 49ers in the 4th round of the 2004 draft.
With his contract expiring at the end of the 2007 season, Sopoaga was in no rush to leave his home away from home, and re-signed with the 49ers just days before the start of free agency in order to stay close to family, teammates and an organization to which he had grown accustomed.
“The most important thing for me is to stay here in the same place with my same teammates,” said Sopoaga. “Plus, I don’t like to travel and in San Francisco I am the closest I can be to my family. After coming from Samoa where it’s hard to earn five dollars per week, being in this situation where I get paid very well to do something I love is amazing!”
While he came from such humble beginnings, Sopoaga has steadily gained a reputation as one of the fiercest and strongest players on the team. He has improved every season since he’s been in the NFL, culminating in a career high 58 tackles and a career high-tying 1.5 sacks in 2007.
Sopoaga credits his improvement in part to some simple motivation from 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.
“It’s like coach always tells us, if you want to go somewhere you have to turn it up a notch in your work ethic and your performance during the season,” said Sopoaga. “If you do that, the coaches can tell. I just try to put myself in that situation by going all out, fighting and being tough on each and every play.”
Without question, the coaches noticed Sopoaga’s improved play in 2007 and rewarded him with increased playing time as the season wore on.
While most players of his size may not be initially viewed as the most athletic players on the field, Sopoaga showed the ability to play nose tackle, defensive end and even linebacker, where he played during one game last season against Seattle.
“Those positions made me learn different techniques as the season progressed and I think that really helped me,” said Sopoaga. “When I put all those things together, it gave me an idea of what I wanted to do going into this season. Now I know how I want to play, react and use my energy against the man in front of me.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky witnessed that consistent energy from Sopoaga in his first year directing the 49ers defense, and is eager to utilize the ever-developing defensive linemen even more in 2008.
“When you get a guy that physical, with that size and that much talent, now he just has to get better in the scheme, defeating blockers and doing what we ask him to do,” said Manusky.
Manusky expects Sopoaga to play primarily at left defensive end this year, a change Sopoaga is very excited about.