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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vandals' Iupati is a 'goofy kid,' NFL prospect

BY NICK JEZIERNY - © 2009 Idaho Statesman

Idaho's standout offensive lineman has come a long way on, off the field

It's fitting that the Idaho football program discovered Mike Iupati at a summer barbecue.

The 6-foot-6, 330-pounder is as known for devouring large quantities of food as he is for being the anchor of the offensive line and an undisputed team leader.

Iupati will lead Idaho into Bronco Stadium on Saturday for the annual rivalry game against Boise State, which has beaten the Vandals 10 years in a row.

But Iupati's story is more than that of a ravenous eating machine with an almost certain NFL future. It's a story of perseverance and of his two favorite words - hard work.

"I think that's a pretty strong success story, and I think there's a lot more success coming in his future," Idaho coach Robb Akey said.

The story starts on the tiny island of American Samoa, where Iupati and his three siblings were raised.

When he finished junior high, his family moved to Garden Grove, Calif., near Anaheim, to chase the American dream.

"My parents sacrificed a lot for us so we could have a better future," Iupati said. "My parents are hard workers."

He attended Western High, where he met Odell Harrington, the school's half-Samoan football coach who remains a close family friend. Iupati calls him "a life coach who has done a lot for my family."

At Western, Iupati played football for the first time. It didn't take long to figure out that the sport was a way to get an education.

Coaches from Pac-10 schools were excited about his potential, but academic problems, caused by a language barrier, prevented him from accepting scholarship offers.

"English is my second language and it's kind of hard to translate my language (Samoan) to English," Iupati said.

Harrington said Iupati should have been put on a different academic track instead of trying to meet NCAA guidelines just so he would be eligible for a scholarship.

"When I think back upon him jumping right into classes to try to be on schedule for the (NCAA) clearinghouse - I just don't see how he could have done it," Harrington said. "He's a smart kid, but the language was difficult."

Iupati didn't have a high enough SAT score or sufficient grades, which meant junior college or paying his way to a Division I school.

Enter the Vandals.

Former assistant coach Johnny Nansen, now at Washington, saw Iupati at a junior college barbecue in 2005 that a school was putting on for potential recruits. Nansen offered him a spot at Idaho the next day and spent considerable time trying to convince Iupati and his family that the school was a better route than junior college.

"If it weren't for coach Nansen convincing his mom, he wouldn't have been at Idaho," Harrington said.

It wasn't an easy decision.

Because Iupati wasn't eligible to play, he was unable to receive a scholarship or financial aid. Harrington said the family took out a loan to pay out-of-state tuition and room and board for his first year, which was a hardship.

"His family has struggled financially since ever since they came here," Harrington said.

Iupati's father is a mechanic who's had some health problems, and his mother is unemployed, in part because of her health.

Idaho turned out to be a great fit for Iupati. He developed his talents to the point where NFL scouts are drooling and potential agents are hounding him. He changed his cell phone number last week to avoid agents' calls.

"It's been crazy," Iupati said. "This year, I just focus on the Vandal football team and the Vandal family and that kind of took my mind off things."

He's handled the attention well, line coach Dan Finn said.

"Scouts show up to watch film and he walks in and introduces himself," Finn said. "Then they watch him practice. I think it's a motivator above all because it's going to happen - he's going to get drafted and play on Sundays."

In the process, he's helped Idaho have its best season in a decade. The All-WAC guard and offensive captain said success comes down those favorite two words.

"You have to work hard to be successful - that's the kind of leadership I do," he said. "I don't really say too much."

He made an exception in the offseason when he went to each player on the team and had a chat about the 2009 season.

"I pulled them aside one by one and told them how important this is, especially to me and this whole team and senior group," he said.

And when Big Mike talks, people have a way of listening. He said it's not because of his size.

"I treat everybody the same," he said. "That's how I am. I don't favor nobody. They like what they see because I work hard."

Teammates love him because he treats everyone the same and he has an infectious, likeable manner.

"It's just his personality," said roommate Tevita Halaholo, also a guard. "It's his sense of humor, he's just a goofy kid."

There's been a lot to smile about this season. Idaho has guaranteed itself a winning season for the first time since 1999 and appears to be bowl-bound for the first time since 1998.

"We worked hard this summer and it did pay off — 7-3, that's pretty big accomplishment," Iupati said. "(The bowl) is our goal and for me to leave Idaho with a ring on my finger will be a big accomplishment."

So, too, will be earning his degree in general studies. He plans to take six credits in the spring to graduate.

"My biggest goal is to graduate," he said. "My parents sacrifice a lot for us to have a better education. The degree will mean a lot to the family, and it's a big accomplishment for me."

After that, it's likely off to the NFL. Then Iupati would like to return to where this story started and visit his former home. He hasn't been back to American Samoa since he moved to the U.S. earlier this decade.

"I'm planning to at least go visit one of these years when I'm kind of free," he said. "This coming year is going to be busy."

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