A Glitter On the Road Exclusive - Mike Iupati, America Somoa to National Football League

By Natalie Noel
Special to News From Indian Country April 2010

Mike Iupati -
©Photos by Sam Whitt
Paradise, a general definition: tropical islands with swaying palms, cobalt blue skies horizon to horizon, volcanic peeks, coral reefs, unspoiled acres of beautiful forest cooled by afternoon showers and trade winds.

Paradise, a National Football League definition: ditto the above, then add - fierce, huge, disciplined warriors, who are nimble dancers, agile, strong and “...40 times more likely to reach the NFL than a boy growing up in the United States.” (Ted Miller, Special to ESPN.com) It is being called, “Football Island” a volcanic rock in the South Pacific, American Samoa is nearly 5,000 miles from California and 2,300 miles south-southwest of Hawaii.

According to 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, “From an island of just 65,000 people, there are more than 30 players of Samoan descent in the NFL and more than 200 playing Division I college ball. That’s like 30 current NFL players coming out of Sparks, Nev., or Gastonia, N.C.” They are a people whose “traditions (are) so perfectly suited to America’s game - it’s as if they’d been waiting centuries for football to come ashore.”

Mike Iupati -
©Photos by Sam Whitt
The journey from American Somoa to the NFL is a long one, which parallels an experience many Native Americans can recognize, starting on an unlined highschool football field strewn with rocks. They are from a farming community and live mostly in poverty, they don’t have a weight room or even a locker room, their equipment is second-hand and donated.

Scott Pelly, from 60 Minutes, remarked that “...if you used some of this gear back in the States, you’d get sued.”           

Discipline, determination, hard work and reverence define the Samoan tradition, the Fa a Somoa, their way of life and it is this tradition, their own Red Road, instilled deeply and humbly within the fiber of the people, that helps pave the way to professional football.

Every January, NFL hopefuls from each corner of the country flock to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl. This is the beginning of the long draft process where coaches, scouts, agents and media study the boys who will be million dollar men come late April.

As luck and blessings would have it, your former Glitter Girl was back in Bama hanging with friends and cousins, when I heard some Indigenous brothers from the isle of Samoa were shaking things up on the practice field.

One big boy, in particular, was causing quite a stir. Mike Iupati, #77, Offensive Lineman for Idaho. At 6'5 and 325 pounds, he is, according to Detroit Lions coach, Jim Schwartz “a proto-typical athlete, right at home playing against the best players in the country. He has good hands, long arms, extraordinary feet, a big heart, incredible athletic ability, he is really strong and he is very, very big, enormous. He can play about anywhere he wants. And,” he joked teasingly, “he’s gonna take all the hair commercials with those long flowing locks! Better than Fabio!” Mike, who was in the audience at the time, grinned an open, sweet, slightly embarassed smile and mockingly brushed his hair back with one hand, while the room erupted in laughter.

In between practices, while he was hot, sweaty and hungry as a bear - the poor boy hadn’t even had lunch - Mike Iupati sat down with me in a quiet corner of the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel, which I had come to call Football Central.

 Mike Iupati being interviewed by Natalie Noel  ©Photos by Sam Whitt

Natalie Noel: Mike, who is your biggest inspiration?
Mike Iupati: My family. Dad and Mom sacrificed a lot coming to the United States to focus on my future, so I could have a better education.
NN: What does this mean to your family?
MI: Happiness, excitement.
NN: When did you start playing football?
MI: Freshman at Western High School, when I was 14, in Anaheim, California.
NN: Tell me about the long hair.
MI: Most Polynesians do it...
NN: Is it a medicine thing?
MI: No, I’m thinking of cutting it, actually...
NN: Don’t do that! What about the endorsements?...
MI: Whatever!...(laughs)
NN: How does your culture, the Fa a Samoa, help you prepare for the game?
MI: Mom pushes us to be great kids and great people, to always be humble at all times. To treat everyone the same and be very respectful. You show them, lead by example, this is how to play football, I’m not bragging, they say, “You’re a beast!,” but I have the mind set, ‘go hard all the time - work hard and have fun.’
NN: How old are you, Mike?
MI: 22
NN: You look like you could be 35!
MI: (laughs...)
NN: What’s the first thing you’re going to buy when you get drafted by the NFL?
MI: I’m gonna build Mom and Dad a house on Samoa and make them happy.
NN: Wow, Mike! That was my next question, ‘What are you going to buy for your Mom?’ look (I turned the page in my notebook and showed him the next question). But this question is, What are you going to buy for you?
MI: I’m not a materialistic guy. I have a girlfriend and I want a nice family. I’ll buy a house, then go back to visit Samoa.
NN: Is there any one team you’re especially excited about?
MI: No, not really. It’s more of just wanting to get a job, so whatever team offers me an opportunity will make it first in my heart.
NN: How much do you eat?
MI: (laughs) I used to eat a lot, I don’t really gain weight, I work it out a lot. Steak, seafood, I love vegetables, broccoli... I’m not a picky eater.
NN: Where do you hope the game takes you in life?
MI: Hopefully, security, to have security in front of me. I wanna be wise financially. With football, you don’t know what’s gonna happpen, so I want to be smart in investing. And I like coaching, spending time with kids, inspiring them to do well, to take all the negatives, use it growing up and not make the same mistakes.
NN: Are you having fun?
MI: Yes, I’m very excited! It’s a blessing to be here!
NM: If there is one piece of advice you could offer to Indigenous kids, what would it be?
MI: Hard work pays off. Focus on little steps and all the big things will come later. Every little thing matters, and don’t just say it, work at it. Don’t showcase, work and get better every day. Don’t have a big-headed mentality, always have respect for one another.
NN: What makes you happy, what hobbies do you have other than football?
MI: I play whatever sport is out there, I don’t like to sit. I like to lift, play basketball and chill with my family a lot. Yeah, watch tv with my family.
NN: What is the greatest asset of your personality?
MI: (rolls his eyes, blushes a bit)..what? (laughs) Humble, work hard...
NN: Mike, what do you think of your inevitable sex symbol status?
MI: What do you mean?
NN: You know like Coach Schwartz was talking about, your hair, endorsements, movie star stuff, you know...
MI: (laughing) No, no, no way...
NN: Mike, thank you so much for your time. Your life is about to change, you will take great care of your family and you deserve all the blessings you're about to receive!

Mike Iupati -
©Photos by Sam Whitt

With a hug, a huge open smile and a hand offered in friendship to photographer, Sam Whitt, Big Mike strolled down the hall in search of lunch, a hot shower and his elder brother, Junior. This shy, movie-star gorgeous gentle man embraces a virtuous way of life, one of humility, respect, loyalty, faith, family and a solid dedication to hard work, qualities that Coach Schwartz says, “make a good athlete and an admirable human being.”

According to Scott Wright, of the NFL MockDraft and any other football expert you might care to ask, Mike Iupati, our Indigenous brother from American Samoa, is expected to go in the first round of the draft, on Thursday, April 22 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The draft will be televised by ESPN and  at www.nfl.com/nflnetwork the NFL Network, so check it out, send big love and big support to Big Mike! I will certainly be watching April 22 and look forward to enjoying a long, prosperous, healthy Mike Iupati pro-football career for many years to come!

The 2010 NFL Draft – the 75th draft in NFL history – will again be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Copyright, Natalie Noel, 2010