SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Mike Iupati remembers carefree days playing touch rugby and hide-and-seek with his friends in the village of Vaitogi, American Samoa, only to find himself at age 14 living in the garage of a relative in Garden Grove, Calif.
He knew little English and even less about football.
Eleven years later, Iupati, called “a gentle giant” by center Jonathan Goodwin, is an All-Pro guard for the 49ers. In contrast to his violent, brute-force style of blocking, Iupati (6-foot-5, 331 pounds) has a cultural predisposition toward kindness and humility.
“A lot of people say I have a big heart, but that’s just a part of me,” Iupati said. “I care about others, and I want them to have what I have, experience what I have now. That’s how I see it.”
Among the storylines leading up to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans will be that of Baltimore Ravens tackle Michael Oher. Homeless as a youth in Memphis, Tenn., his rise to an NFL star has been chronicled in both a book and movie entitled “The Blind Side.”
Johnny Nansen, a Samoan assistant coach at Idaho who stumbled upon Iupati at a barbecue while on a recruiting trip, sees the 49ers’ “Big Mike” as no less remarkable.
“By accident I ran into him, and the rest is history,” Nansen said by phone between recruiting stops at his current job at the University of Washington. “Look at what he’s doing with his life. It’s almost like a movie when you think about where he came from.”
Robb Akey, admittedly biased as Iupati’s head coach for all three seasons at Idaho, calls it “the greatest story in America.”
A first-round draft pick in 2010 by the 49ers, No. 17 overall, Iupati has started every game for three seasons.
Former 49ers center Randy Cross said Iupati’s technique is improving to the point where he soon can be compared to former Dallas Cowboys and 49ers guard Larry Allen, a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.
John Madden, former Raiders coach and NFL analyst, said, “Mike Iupati is not somebody I’d want to line up against. A couple of steps and he’s at full power. That was a hell of a draft choice.”
Akey recalled Iupati blocking two defenders at a time downfield for Idaho in a 43-42 win over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl. A finalist for the 2009 Outland Trophy along with tackle Russell Okung and winner Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska, Iupati caused Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer to pick up the phone and call team president Mark Murphy.
Kramer, a 1957 All-America selection from Idaho, said he told Murphy, “I’ve never called you guys about anything, but I’ve just seen the best prospect I’ve seen in 40 years. You’d better take a look at this kid.”
In his early teens, football was simply a way to kill time as Iupati adjusted to a different culture.
“I didn’t know about football, didn’t know about scholarships,” Iupati said.
While parents Aposetelo and Belinda Iupati saved money for an apartment, Iupati, his two brothers and one sister lived in the garage of cousins for more than six months in Garden Grove.
The quick move from Santiago High to Western High in Anaheim brought with it a connection to Odell Harrington, a coach with Samoan heritage. Iupati, with Harrington’s help, adjusted to a new language and culture without leaving behind his own.
Harrington said the difference in Polynesian students born in America and those who arrived later is striking.
“Their culture is all based on respect,” Harrington said. “When you come in a house, you take off your shoes. When it’s time to eat, the older people are fed first. Then the young people clean up. Mike would immediately give respect to teachers and adults. It’s the way he was raised.”
If the adjustment in culture bothered Iupati, it never showed.
“It was weird for us speaking English until we slowly became comfortable,” Iupati said. “As for as what other kids thought, we tried our best. Some kids laughed. We didn’t care.”
Former 49ers center Jesse Sapolu, a celebrity in Samoa borne of four Super Bowl rings, said the structure of football is often sanctuary for Polynesians.
“The protocol of how we are raised is similar to how football is in America,” Sapolu said.
“Every family has a chief. The head coach is looked upon as the chief. Then there’s the talking chief – (49ers line coach) Mike Solari is the talking chief in Mike’s eyes.
“The ultimate respect for authority, it comes natural to Mike because it’s the foundation of how he is raised and what’s expected in our culture.”
While Iupati was a natural on the football field, the language barrier slowed academic progress. By Iupati’s junior year in high school, it was clear he would not qualify for a Division I scholarship, although that didn’t stop curious USC coach Pete Carroll from visiting the campus.
Nansen, after meeting Iupati at a community college barbecue, immediately spoke with his high school coaches and arranged a meeting with Iupati’s family.
“It was a one-bedroom apartment, mats on the floors, beds in the living rooms,” Nansen said. “Mike sat on the floor, taking everything in. I spoke Samoan with his parents. I knew as soon as I met his family I wanted him.”
Nansen said he called then-Idaho coach Nick Holt and “begged him to take a chance on this kid.”
Missing some required courses, Iupati was ineligible for a scholarship and had to spend his freshman year going to school without football.
His family borrowed and saved to pay for the first year of school.
“It was hard. I hated it, honestly,” Iupati said. “I’d call up my cousin, say I wanted to transfer. But I grew to love it.”
Iupati got through the year with a B average and 24 units, qualifying him to play football the next season on scholarship, the beginning of a college career that would serve as a springboard toward Super Bowl XLVII.
Grateful to Harrington and Nansen – “All Samoans back each other up” – and pleased to help his family, which now includes a wife and son, Iupati said his journey was step by step.
“The whole purpose of my parents moving here was to sacrifice, have a chance at a better education and a better future,” Iupati said. “I took advantage of it. I wanted to support my family. I didn’t want to grow up living paycheck to paycheck. Growing up, I had goals.”
As big as Iupati is, he is even bigger in American Samoa, where his fame rivals that of Troy Polamalu, the Pittsburgh Steelers safety of Samoan descent.
“I go to clinics there every year, and it’s, ‘Mike Iupati this, and Mike Iupati that,’” Nansen said. “Mike is almost in that boat now (with Polamalu) in Samoan culture. When Mike plays in the Super Bowl, every Polynesian kid is going to be watching that game, and they’re all going to be watching him.”