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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Iupati living large in Idaho

MOSCOW, Idaho – Mike Iupati wants to clear up one misconception right away: Back in American Samoa, most people aren’t huge.

Quite the opposite, actually. They do hard, physical labor. They don’t have an unending buffet line of food.

But when Samoans come to America, something happens. Iupati has seen it over and over again.

“They tend to eat all (the food they can),” he said. “It’s like heaven to them.”

So imagine Iupati’s reaction the first day he arrived in the U.S., as a 6-foot, 200-pound 14-year-old, when his family took him to Burger King. He already couldn’t fathom how large everything in Southern California seemed, but this was the topper.

“Our uncle bought a hamburger for us and it was just humongous,” Iupati said, laughing at the memory. “Now I look at the same hamburger and it’s so small. I’m like, ‘What happened to the big ones they used to serve?’ ”

It’s amusing now, of course, that Iupati used to be fascinated by size. These days it’s his mountainous frame that has people – particularly NFL scouts – buzzing.

The University of Idaho’s celebrated left guard is 6-6, 330 pounds and lean enough to pass for a heavyweight MMA fighter. His imposing stature and nimble feet have made him one of the top interior offensive line prospects for next year’s NFL draft.

In some ways, though, Iupati’s rise is as unlikely as the Vandals’ ongoing revival. He didn’t play organized football until he was 14, and he wasn’t even aware that American universities gave out football scholarships until a few years before he enrolled at the Moscow school.

Nonetheless, he could be one of the first 50 players drafted in the spring.

“We’ve had some good offensive linemen where I’ve coached,” UI coach Robb Akey said. “He would be one of the best that ever played for us.”

The thing is, Iupati almost never took a snap for Akey.

As a senior at Western High in Anaheim, Calif., Iupati was a well-known football commodity. But a lackluster academic profile – hurt by his lack of proficiency with English – turned away Pac-10 suitors, namely Arizona.

He settled on Idaho after the persistence of assistant Johnny Nansen and spent his first year sorting out classroom issues.

By 2006, when Iupati joined the football team, he was caught in the middle of a dizzying coaching shuffle, with Nick Holt and Dennis Erickson both making short-lived stays. The chaos almost prompted him to transfer.

“My freshman year, I wasn’t playing and Coach Holt left,” he said. “I just figured I would leave too because I hated it. I honestly hated Idaho.”

That dislike eventually waned, largely because of the close bond Iupati, 22, formed with teammates with similar Polynesian backgrounds. The brotherhood, as players call it, took root early in Iupati’s career and has branched out to include seven or eight current Vandals.

“On the field we have a brotherhood; off the field we have another one,” linebacker JoJo Dickson said. “It helps to have people to fall back on sometimes, you know? It gets stressful with school and football.”

As he is on Idaho’s offensive line, Iupati is the unquestioned leader with his Polynesian teammates. He organizes barbecues in the offseason, often grilling steaks, chicken and sausage with a distinct marinade centered on soy sauce and onions.

The summer barbecues and river trips became such big hits that other teammates starting coming as well.

“I came in and I took most of them in,” Iupati said. “I’m Polynesian and that’s why they respect me a lot, and they look at me as a brother.”

The soft-spoken offensive captain made it an emphasis to build a family atmosphere with his teammates. It was the only thing he knew to do.

He grew up as the third of four children to Belinda and Aposetolo Iupati, who moved their family to the U.S. from the remote South Pacific territory for better education and career opportunities.

Mike’s younger brother, Andrew, is a defensive tackle at Oregon and Junior, the eldest son, ended his career at the junior-college level after a series of knee injuries.

With their children away, the Iupatis have struggled financially while living in Stanton, Calif., just outside of Anaheim. Aposetolo is a mechanic and Belinda is out of work.

Both have battled recent health issues.

“Sometimes I go home and look at the little things that I take advantage of here, like food and stuff like that,” Mike said. “And over there, I mean … it hurts.”

His family’s financial strain is a major motivation to earn an NFL roster spot, said Odell Harrington, a family friend and former coach to the Iupati brothers.

Harrington was with Mike this past summer when agents were calling and the reality of a future pro career was setting in. Yet even when he allowed himself to daydream for a moment, Mike’s focus was telling.

“He said to his brother, ‘When I get to the league, we’re going to eat good,’ ” Harrington said. “Not what car he’s going to buy, not what jewelry he’s going to buy. We’re going to eat good.

“That’s Michael. That’s Big Mike. He’s going to be blessed to be able to help a lot of people and I have no doubt that he will.”

But first Iupati is preoccupied with helping steer the Vandals from irrelevance to mid-major prominence. At 5-1 entering Saturday’s home game with Hawaii, they are one win from gaining bowl eligibility.

The leadership Iupati and other seniors have provided has been vital to the program’s turnaround. Just this week, the overpowering lineman delivered a message that particularly resonated with teammates.

“We’re 5-1 and I told them to never get satisfied,” he said.

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