Idaho's Mike Iupati makes impression at Senior Bowl practices | NFL
Mike Iupati, a 325-pound guard from Idaho, has been impressive at Senior Bowl practices and is a likely early pick in April's NFL draft.
Seattle Times staff reporter
MOBILE, Ala. — This American dream started in the garage of Auntie Lua's house in Southern California.
Mike Iupati was 14 and still learning English when his family emigrated from American Samoa, staying the first year with relatives as he began a most unexpected journey that has him at the brink of NFL riches.
He attended the University of Idaho only after a random introduction to a college assistant coach who originally thought Iupati was too old to be a recruit.
Now, this American dream is here at the Senior Bowl, hip deep among some of the biggest and best prospects for April's draft. Iupati is a 6-foot-5 road grader of a guard, 325 pounds of potential, and when he deposited Louisiana Tech's D'Anthony Smith on his keister during a pass-rush drill Tuesday morning, eyes all across the NFL took notice.
"Oooh, flat-backed him," said one NFL assistant coach.
Iupati is one of the most intriguing players at the Senior Bowl. As an Outland Trophy finalist, he was recognized as one of the best interior linemen in the country. The question was how he would fare when he came eye-to-eye with elite opponents.
Tuesday, he didn't blink. He more than held his own. He did, however, struggle when he was moved to left tackle, caught off balance and dumped over by Tyson Alualu of California.
Did Iupati feel he had something to prove?
"Just live up to the expectations," he said. "I'm obviously from a WAC team, a small conference. I've just got to compete at all times."
Iupati has been doing that for years. Ever since he arrived in this country, the second youngest of four children. Mom, Dad and two brothers moved here, staying with family members the first year before moving to Anaheim, where Iupati enrolled at Western High School.
Football wasn't a problem. He wasn't a blue-chip prospect, but he was talented enough to attract interest from Pac-10 schools like Arizona. He didn't qualify academically to accept a scholarship, however, so he was headed to Cerritos Junior College.
At least he was until he went to a barbecue at Golden West Junior College where his brother played. That was when Iupati met Johnny Nansen, then an Idaho assistant coach. Nansen stopped by only to see a coaching friend, and he initially mistook Iupati for a member of the staff.
"I thought he was a grown man," said Nansen, now an assistant special-teams coach under Steve Sarkisian at Washington.
More like raw material. When Nansen found out the kid was headed to junior college, he delayed his return to Idaho and arranged a visit in the family's home. He presented the possibility that Iupati could come to school as an academic non-qualifier and earn eligibility after one year.
"We knew Mike had a great heart," Nansen said.
The catch? A non-qualifier isn't on scholarship, meaning he must pay for that first year of school. Iupati worried about the debt.
"I didn't want to take it, seriously," Iupati said. "But my mom and my family pushed me to take the offer."
His parents, Belinda and Aposetolo, took out a loan to help offset the costs. Mike kept his grades above the 2.0 average necessary to earn eligibility. Now, Iupati is scheduled to earn his degree in general studies in May.
He'll likely have a job locked up by then, though. Bulldozers with his size and strength command a premium in the NFL job market. This week began with him considered a candidate to be chosen in the first two rounds, and nothing that has happened since he arrived for the Senior Bowl has changed that assessment.
Eight years after his family moved to America in search of better opportunities, Iupati says his parents are the biggest reason he stands at the brink of this million-dollar opportunity.
"Every success I had is through them," he said. "I put them first because they were my motivation, my inspiration. It has been great.
"Living a dream."
An American dream.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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