There was an error in this gadget

Search This Blog

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Iupati makes the most of his opportunities in life, on field

By MARK WHICKER
By MARK WHICKER
COLUMNIST
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
mwhicker@ocregister.com

ANAHEIM – Put it this way: If Michael Iupati's draft party Thursday had been an NFL stadium, they would have lifted the blackout a month ago.

Uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins, Western High teammates, friends, parishoners and general loyalists converged on the house just off Ball Road, the one with the red, white and blue balloons and the poster that read, "Michael Iupati: Living The Dream," and the satellite truck in the driveway and the endless trays of vittles. The house belongs to Odell Harrington, who was an assistant coach at Western when the Iupati family arrived from American Samoa, to confront a strange language, and a society that was a little stingier with the milk and honey than it claims.

All the struggle melted away when the call came: The San Francisco 49ers would take Iupati with the 17th pick of the first round of the NFL draft.

"They called a couple of picks beforehand," Iupati said, standing on the patio as his mom Linda danced to Polynesian music near the pool, a few minutes after Harrington had led the gathering in a champagne toast.

"Sure, I was a little nervous, and I thought maybe Oakland would call (with the No. 8 pick), but this is great. This is going to be a good place for me."

Iupati thus became the first player from the University of Idaho to make the first round since fullback Ray McDonald in 1967. He is 6-foot-5 and 331, a guard who, after he bulldozed his way through the Senior Bowl, became the subject of remarkable consensus. There was no way he would fall below the Steelers, at No. 18. Iupati's rival at guard, Florida's Maurice Pouncey, became Pittsburgh's consolation prize.

Nobody in this draft had to cover more distance.

Aposotolo and Linda Iupati and their four children moved to Orange County when Mike was 14. Junior is two years older. Andrew, who will play at Humboldt State, is two years younger.

A physical education teacher at Santiago High asked Junior if he ever had considered football.

"It was a piece of cake," Junior said. "We weren't small kids. They said, you gotta push this guy and get the other guy."

The Iupatis went to Western High after that, and Junior told coach Toby Howell that he had a pretty decent little brother. Then Michael showed up. "I thought you said he was little," Howell told Junior.

One night, Los Altos sent a tackle and guard to block Michael. He slid down the line, and pretty soon five linemen had surrounded him. He simply reached over them and plucked the quarterback.

But Junior was right. Compared to life, football was easy.

It was a tough age to be learning a new language, right when academics get crucial, and then the Iupatis' apartment flooded out. "We were basically homeless," Junior said. Harrington, who lived a couple of blocks away, took them in, arranged for them to drive a van. For a time the parents lived in the garage.

Aposotolo is an engineer at LAX now, but steady work wasn't automatic. Junior blew out a knee, which ruined chances to play big-league college football, and when he recovered, his dad had heart problems. Junior had to stay home and work.

"At one point Michael was going to keep a log of everything his family did for him," Harrington said. "That also motivated him."

"It's a different culture," Junior said. "At home your parents call you once and if you don't respond, you're in trouble. It's looser here. It's been important for all of us to remember what it was like, where he came from."

It appeared Iupati might go to Golden West, but then Dan Cozzetto, then the offensive line coach at Idaho, saw him walking around and got his name.

Because Iupati was a partial qualifier, he would have had to pay for his freshman year. The family took loans to make that happen. Then he had to make it work, adjust to the snow, adjust to three different head coaches.

The current one, Robb Akey, took the Vandals to a Humanitarian Bowl victory over Bowling Green. But as Iupati developed, and as he dreamed of the pros, he fought off the urge to transfer.

That meant he had to perform at the Senior Bowl, had to block people such as Jared Odrick of Penn State to sway the scouts. It didn't take long.

Iupati has said he will take part of the money and buy his parents a house in Samoa.

"What they did for me was remarkable," he said. "But everything is here, it's the land of opportunity. It's all in front of you., You've just got to grind."

And eventually a mellow Thursday evening comes along with cars parked all the way down the street, on both sides. And you dance.

No comments: