Senior Bowl: Iupati Conquers Challenges

The hulking guard from Idaho's path to the first round of the NFL draft began in American Samoa. And, who knows, with the help of an NFL legend, maybe his next move will be to the all-important left tackle position.

Mike Iupati went to college with the thought of becoming a probation officer.

"Hopefully that opportunity will still be there," he said without a touch of sarcasm or insincerity.

It probably will, but not until the mountainous guard completes what's expected to be a lengthy NFL career.

Iupati is expected to be a first-round pick in three months. That's rarified air for a player from Idaho, which boasts Packers legend Jerry Kramer as its finest football player. Plus, only three guards have been selected in the first round since 2003.

The path to the draft hasn't been easy for the 6-foot-5, 325-pounder made it look on Saturdays against mostly substandard competition.

Iupati was born on American Samoa and moved to Garden Grove, Calif., with his three siblings after completing junior high school. He lived at his Auntie Lua's house with about nine or 10 others. He laughs when he recalls sleeping in the same bed as his uncle because the space was so cramped.

Iupati began playing football at Western High School and, not surprisingly considering his size and athletic ability, quickly drew recruiters. Coaches from Pac-10 schools were in hot pursuit, but his adjustment from Samoan to English led to struggles in the classroom and chased away the recruiters.

"The big words, the definitions, the words that I'd never heard back in the islands," he said. "Back in the islands, I heard the basic English. When I came, it was a mixture of big words I've never heard and I'd never heard some of the words that they used. I was like, 'Wow.'"

Iupati was set to enroll at a junior college to get his grades up in hopes of competing for a Division I program. Instead, then-Idaho assistant Johnny Nansen, now at Washington, spotted Iupati at a recruiting barbecue hosted by a junior college. He offered Iupati a shot to earn a scholarship, but first he'd have to pay his own way and get his grades up while sitting out football for a year. It was a difficult decision, considering the financially strapped family had to get a loan to pay for a year of out-of-state tuition.

Fast forward, to today, and the well-spoken Iupati is set to hit the jackpot in April and earn his degree in May.

"I think about it all the time," he said of how far he's come. "It's just a great accomplishment and the opportunity I took advantage of, that's what matters to me. Most college people, they're very talented but sometimes the academics kick in. I took advantage of it. My family is a motivation to me because we came a long way. For me to be here is a blessing. I'm just overwhelmed."

Last April, Iupati recalls watching the draft with friends and seeing his friend and fellow Polynesian, Fili Moala, being drafted. That day left an impression on the giant, and now he's less than three months from making his own memories.

He's working overtime to ensure that it happens. While scouts have little doubts about Iupati's ability to play guard -- his Football Championship Subdivision opponents notwithstanding -- his athletic ability could make him an asset at offensive tackle. In fact, he's working with a football legend to get himself ready, knowing that versatility is crucial on the offensive line because teams only activate seven or eight linemen on gamedays.

"I think I can play left tackle because I'm very dominant on my right side. I think I could," he said with a big smile. "I'm working it right now with Jackie Slater. I think I'll do very well. It's just the repetition. I need to get reps at it. I'll be fine."


Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.


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