MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho football team was deep into its final practice before Saturday’s spring game when Robb Akey felt a tap on his shoulder. It was former Vandals star lineman Mike Iupati, now of the San Francisco 49ers, who decided to spring a surprise visit on his old coach and teammates.
“I turn around and there’s a mountain standing there,” Akey said after Thursday’s workout. “I jumped up and gave him a hug and I started crying.”
Akey put a sudden stop to practice and rounded up his players so that Iupati, who helped guide Idaho to a Humanitarian Bowl triumph in 2009, could give an impromptu address to the team.
San Francisco’s first-round pick from a year ago didn’t disappoint.
“He spoke straight from his heart,” Akey said. “It was absolutely awesome, and it was a great message he delivered to our football team about enjoying the opportunities you have.”
For the current Vandals, the last opportunity to work out as a team with coaches on hand before fall camp is the Silver and Gold game on Saturday morning at 10. A rash of injuries and miserable weather – something UI has endured with the Kibbie Dome closed for renovation – have been the stories of spring.
Iupati, though, provided a pick-me-up with his quick return to Moscow.
“Oh, the guys, they loved it because … he’s an NFL player, a first-round draft pick,” linebacker Tre’Shawn Robinson said. “He’s a Vandal alum now. He makes his presence known. The guys miss him. He was a good leader.”
Akey didn’t know Iupati was back on campus until the 330-pound guard approached him at practice. After the two caught up and Iupati was about to leave, Akey asked him to talk to the club.
“He’s done what they aspire to do, and he’s telling them how much he misses college and college football,” the coach said. “I just hoped our guys listened to that because he certainly exemplifies the work it takes to get to that level.”
Akey has been pleased with the progress UI made this spring, particularly since so many fresh-faced players have had to fill voids left by hobbled veterans. Although most of the injuries aren’t expected to stretch into fall camp, there’s one big exception.
On Saturday safety Thaad Thompson, expected to compete for a starting spot, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a one-on-one drill. The knee injury will require surgery and most likely force the 6-foot-3 senior-to-be to sit out the 2011 season.