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Sunday, May 02, 2010

New 49er guard Iupati honors Samoan heritage

Ask Michael Iupati, one of the 49ers' two first-round draft picks, about spending close to a year of his adolescence living in his aunt's Orange County garage, and he'll explain without emphasizing the deprivation.
"They took us into their home," he said of his parents, himself and three siblings, "but we didn't want to invade their space all the time," he said.
When the aunt, his father's sister, welcomed another of her brothers into the home, Iupati had to share a bed with him for a while. He laughed as he described the arrangement. He was 14, and his family had just arrived from American Samoa, because his parents hoped to find solid futures for their children here. Sacrifice was expected. Humor was essential. The values that build a good football team inhabited that garage.
At the time, Michael estimates, he was already about 6 feet tall and 210 pounds. When his mother took him and his older brother to enroll at the high school near their aunt's Garden Grove home, an administrator saw them in the office and immediately asked if they wanted to play football.
Iupati knew little about the game. His dad would watch the NFL on TV in Samoa, but the future 49er in the house didn't pay much attention. Professional wrestling made a stronger impression on him.
In fact, that became his backup career plan. As he went through the University of Idaho, becoming an All-American and a finalist for the Outland Trophy, which recognizes the best college lineman, Iupati had every reason to believe that he would end up in the NFL. But if he didn't, his time in football had taught him something important: "I'm very competitive, and I need to use my body and use all this energy."
He sees his future, however lucrative, as a tribute to his parents and the choices they made. Back in Samoa, he said, they had a fairly comfortable life. They lived on about an acre of land, where they grew bananas and taro and beans that rounded out their meals. Saturdays usually were devoted to fishing, Sundays to the traditional umu, a form of cooking underground with lava rocks. His father, Aposetolo, repaired cars, and his mother, Belinda, helped run a Chinese restaurant owned by her family.
When they arrived in the States, Michael's father waited for immigration clearance and then took a job on the maintenance crew for cargo movers at Los Angeles International Airport. After the first year, they moved to an apartment in Anaheim, near Western High School. The struggles hadn't ended, though.
Michael thrived in football, wrestling and track, and as he grew closer to his current 6-5 and 325 pounds, major college teams expressed serious interest. But after only four years in the States, he hadn't mastered English sufficiently to meet the academic requirements for scholarship athletes.
He had two options: go to junior college and play football there, or have his parents take out a loan to send him to a four-year school, where he would sit out of football for a year while he focused on schoolwork, all in the hope that the football coach would deliver a scholarship the following year.
Iupati picked a junior college, Cerritos. At a barbecue for the team and its recruits, he met Johnny Nansen, an Idaho assistant coach of Samoan descent. Nansen began some Hail Mary recruiting, persuading the family to send the son (and borrowed money) to arctic Moscow, Idaho.
"He was able to talk to Michael's mother in her own language, and I think that's what made the difference," said Odell Harrington, an assistant coach for Iupati in high school and now an assistant at Golden West Community College. "Coach Nansen could explain things to her so that she could trust him."
Harrington is also half-Samoan, and he and his wife became close friends with the Iupati family. When the Iupatis' apartment complex flooded, destroying their cars and damaging their home, the Harringtons helped them find a clunker van, and invited the Iupati sons to stay at their home for a week.
"When they were here, you should have seen them," Harrington said. "They cooked and cleaned. If they got a dish dirty, they washed it right away. That's just what they're like. If you go over to their house today, after dinner, you'll probably see one of the boys washing the dishes."
Leaving that tight family for Idaho proved very difficult. "I couldn't play football because I was Prop 48 (an ineligible freshman). All I could do was study," Iupati said. "I was really homesick." Then came the snow, an exotic experience for a Samoan/Southern Californian.
"First time I saw it, I was so excited," he said. "But after two or three weeks, it was, 'When is this going to stop?' "
Two friends on campus helped him get through the first year, and then he bloomed as an offensive guard.
When he arrived for his first news conference with the 49ers, he looked bigger than fellow first-round pick, Anthony Davis, a tackle. Iupati beat the odds by going at No. 17 in the draft, much higher than teams usually choose guards.
He worked out at tackle at the Senior Bowl and underwent predraft training with former Rams tackle Jackie Slater. But as Iupati became the biggest star Idaho has had in years, why didn't he insist on trying the more glamorous and lucrative tackle spot? Very simply, he replied: "I like to pull."
Harrington explained further. The Vandals needed a guard when Iupati joined the team, so he did what was required. "He would never complain or think about the money," Harrington said. "He would always put the team first."
The money does matter, though. He plans to use some of his first-round cash to build a house for his parents back in Samoa.
For the NFL, the island territory has been a cradle of great talent, from Junior Seau to Troy Polamalu. The 49ers' most famous connection is Western Samoa native Jesse Sapolu.
"He was the center, right?" Iupati asked the day after the draft. Even when he paid scant attention to the game as a child, he had heard that name, a powerful connection between his old home and his newest one.
E-mail Gwen Knapp at

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