MOSCOW -- If someone had asked a pre-teen Mike Iupati what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would have said a fireman – or maybe a policeman.
Fast forward to 2005 and the University of Idaho campus. It’s Iupati’s freshman year in college. He’s visiting with a girl whose dad is a football coach; she’s a true fan of the game. Iupati tells her he’s going to be a first-round NFL draft choice. She scoffs and walks away.
Five years pass and it’s the eve of the 2010 National Football League draft. By all accounts, Mike Iupati will be a first-round choice. By sometime Thursday night, he should become the highest drafted Vandal in 43 years – since Ray McDonald went in the first round of the 1967 draft. If he’s higher than 13th in the first round, he’ll become the highest draft choice in school history – a history that dates to Theron Ward going to the Packers as the seventh pick of the fourth round (34th overall) in 1936.
“It’s been busy,” said Iupati, with his easy-going grin. That’s a classic Mike Iupati understatement about the months-long process that has led to the draft. “It’s been a great experience. It’s once in a lifetime.”
The draft is the culmination of a whirlwind senior season for Iupati. After the Vandals’ Humanitarian Bowl victory, the NFL came courting. He’s been to workouts and tryouts. He played in the Senior Bowl and went to the NFL Combine at Indianapolis, which draws NFL personnel evaluators from all 32 teams. Then came a coast-to-coast tour that took him to Miami, Kansas City, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco for more evaluations.
“I am fully taking advantage of this great opportunity,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be in this position.”
He is determined to make the most of it.
“I’m very excited to be the best,” he said. “I’m going to go prove myself. I’m going to have to work hard; make a name for myself at the next level. Just like at Idaho.
“I’m just excited. I can’t wait to find out where I’m going, put on the pads and start playing.”
Iupati has a quick and definitive answer when asked what he will do with his first check.
“I’m going to build my parents a house in Samoa,” he said of his plans to make Belinda and Aposetolo Iupati’s dream of returning home to Samoa come true. “Then I’ll probably travel to Indonesia and Australia to see the family.”
Iupati’s journey to the draft began when his family moved from American Samoa to Anaheim, Calif., when he was 14. A teacher took one look at him and suggested he try out for the football team. It was love at first collision. He was bound for a junior college when an Idaho assistant coach caught sight of him. He pitched Idaho to Iupati and the next thing Iupati knew he was in Moscow. He didn’t play his first year then worked his way onto the field as a redshirt freshman. By the time he was a sophomore, he was starting full time. Off-season shoulder surgery delayed the start of his junior season, but when he came back it was clear he was special.
As the 2009 season was about to unfold, coach Robb Akey was prophetic in assessing the Vandals’ left guard.
“He’ll be one of the top linemen in the country this year,” Akey projected. “He’s a fantastic leader, very physical and a tremendous person.”
Iupati was honored by his teammates as their offensive captain, which backed up all Akey had to say about him. He would end up a consensus All-American as a first-team selection to the Football Writers’ Association of America, the American Football Coaches Association, The Associated Press and the Walter Camp Foundation teams. His appearance in the Senior Bowl was the 13th all-time by a Vandal and the first since Mao Tosi in 1999.
As he begins to write the next chapter of his football career, Iupati has fond recollections of the one that is ending.
“I have a lot of great memories – the community and my teammates,” he said. “I grew to love Idaho. I lived here for five years. I’m just blessed to be here and call this my home.”