Saturday, October 31, 2009

Right Tackle Poti is Unique @ PSU

There are times, Ako Poti admits, when he gets just a bit homesick for the familiar customs, food and faces he left behind.

Penn State's senior starting right tackle from Daly City, Calif., is of Samoan descent and there isn't much of a Polynesian community in State College. In fact, he might comprise it all by himself.

There also is the little matter of him being a junior college transfer, a species of Nittany Lion that is almost as rare. The only other such player on the roster is his main competitor for his starting spot, Nerraw McCormack, although McCormack is from the Bronx and presumably more on the same wave length with Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who even in his 60th season in Happy Valley doesn't bother much to conceal his Brooklyn roots. In any case, Poti and McCormack are the first juco transfers at Penn State since wide receiver Mike Alexander ran his last pass pattern in 1987.

The 6-3, 305-pound Poti could have gone to one of those Western Athletic Conference or Mountain West Conference schools -- like, for instance, Utah, where his father, Issako Poti, played football from 1983 to '87.

Every now and then, when he watches Utah or BYU play on television, Poti is reminded of the choice he faced in December 2006.

"Seeing all the Samoans and Polynesians on TV, I think, 'I could have been with them, my people,' " said Poti, who will make his fourth consecutive start on Saturday, when No. 12 Penn State (7-1, 3-1 Big 10) takes on Northwestern (5-3, 2-2) in Evanston, Ill. "But I grew up with Samoans. I wanted to break away a little bit."

He broke away to a land where the nearest palm tree is a photo in a travel brochure. It doesn't snow in Samoa and hardly ever in California, where Poti was an All-America at City College of San Francisco. The idea of experiencing something new lost some of its allure when Poti, who enrolled at Penn State in January 2007, stepped out into the chilly air a few times.

"I remember calling my mother," Poti recalled. "I said, 'Mom, I think I need a scarf. I never used a scarf in my life, but I think I really need one now.' "

Poti endured the cold because of the opportunity. He figured he would have a chance to play immediately, but what sold him on PSU was his first meeting with Paterno.

"Just hearing him say, 'I don't want you if you're not a good student,' kind of made Penn State look a whole lot better to me," Poti said.

Poti is a good student, in the classroom and on the field, according to PSU quarterback Darryl Clark.

"What I really like about Ako is that when he makes a mistake, he will apologize to us in the huddle," Clark said. "Then on the next play, he'll go out and put somebody right on their behind. You got to like a guy like that."

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UP CLOSE: Vic So`oto

Nickname: Vic
Favorite cold cereal: Raisin Bran
Favorite Bronco Mendenhall Quote: “Pursuits”
Why did I choose to play football over other sports: because I was offered scholarships.
Before a football game, I: Listen to my ipod and text my wife.
How did I spend my off-season: healing and getting married.
Who is the best player I’ve ever faced: Imari Malifua and Russell Tialavea in high school.
What would I like to do sometime in my life: climb Mt. Everest.
One place I would like to visit: American Samoa.
Who has had the greatest influence on my football career and why: My dad, he pushes me to be my best.
What do I want to be doing 20 years from now: Golfing.
How did I select my jersey number: My favorite player is Rodney Harrison.
What is my favorite hobby or activity away from football: Playing the guitar with Wally.
What is the best book I’ve ever read: The Book of Mormon.
People say I look like: Brian Kehl, The Rock, My dad and any other Polynesian teammate.
What is my most memorable athletic achievement or moment: Winning CIF in high school.
My most interesting class I’ve taken at BYU: Tom Golightly.
My favorite scripture: Ether 12:6
My favorite website:
My advice to youngsters: Listen to your mom.
If I had to give up all of my possessions except one, what would be the one thing I kept and why: my autographed Bronco Mendenhall football, self explanatory.
If I were hosting you on a recruiting visit to Provo, the most impressive thing I’d have to show you is: LaVell Edwards Stadium, also self explanatory.
If I were on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” the person I’d call for my lifeline is: I’d slap Regis and take the million!
If I could play another position, what would it be: Kicker.
One rule I’d change in college football is: Roughing the passer.
If I could invite any three people to dinner, who would they be: three of my ancestors.
On game day my friends and relatives: text me good luck and feed me after the game.

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Defining Moment for Masoli and Ducks

Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli is not one to get flustered, whether it be with the game on the line or dealing with an early season slump or this Saturday's Halloween treat, No. 4 USC at No. 10 Oregon (5 p.m., ABC).

"You could be talking to him during a timeout with a minute left in the game," CCSF offensive coordinator Dan Hayes said of his former pupil, "and it would be like you called him in the middle of March just to chit-chat."

Masoli struggled in his first three games this season, including an ugly loss at Boise State from which Oregon has impressively bounced back. He was 29-of-64 for 379 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions before coming alive (21-of-25 for 253 yards and three TDs) in a 42-3 thrashing of Cal.

In hindsight, his struggles could have been about timing with a new offensive line and new receivers. Last week, back from a knee injury, he threw for 157 yards and a touchdown and ran for 54 yards and two TDs in a rout of Washington.

"Jeremiah is just a winner," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.

And an even-keeled one.

"There are a lot of things on the line (against USC)," said the junior, who is 9-2 as a starter in Pac-10 games and 5-0 at Autzen Stadium. "We understand that, and we're a mature team, and all we have to do is go in and execute."

After throwing for 3,592 yards and 31 touchdowns at CCSF in 2007, he transferred and rose to No. 1 on the Oregon depth chart last season.

"Then he's on the cover of Sports Illustrated," CCSF coach George Rush said. "The second coming of Jesus. That can be a lot to handle. ... But I knew he'd be fine. He is clutch. He is money on the table."

Masoli will try and hurt USC with his quick decisions in the perimeter passing game. The Trojans, meanwhile, are excited about the emergence of running back Allen Bradford, as coach Pete Carroll has been trying to replace power runner LenDale White since 2005.

Kelly, asked about USC's latest "thunder and lightning" backfield of Bradford and Joe McKnight, said: "They've got thunder, lightning, hurricane, typhoon. You name a storm, they've got it; they've got so many running backs at that place."

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Notre Dame Freshman Linebacker Manti Te'o Speaks Softly, Hits Fiercely

On a biting, drizzly Midwest afternoon, Manti Te'o practiced without a long-sleeve shirt under his football pads. Reading blocking schemes and weather forecasts has become a dual priority for a Hawaii native who is decidedly anti-freeze, so this was a curious sight Tuesday.

As Notre Dame prepared to face Washington State, that's all it was: curious. Still, you half-expected to hear how the freshman linebacker grew polar fleece on his arms, or used his intensity to self-insulate. Hyper-hyperbole regarding Te'o is epidemic, primarily because he's measuring up to some tall tales.

"He's out there trying to kill everyone he hits," Irish linebacker Brian Smith said. "It's a joy to be out there next to him."

Case in point: Where others merely tackle, Manti Te'o gleefully commits felonious assault.

Plainly, since the program's best defensive recruit in years became a full-time starter three games ago, he leads the Irish with 27 tackles in that span, registering nine stops and 2 1/2 tackles-for-loss Saturday against Boston College.

He's thriving because he knows where to direct his explosive 244-pound frame. But that, of course, is far too ordinary a description.

"I don't know how else to say it, but I always used to like linebackers who would run through somebody's face," Irish coach Charlie Weis said. "That's what Manti does."

Or, as linebacker Scott Smith put it: "I think he'd hit anybody in the mouth, any time, anywhere."

That's jarring, too, after listening to Te'o discuss his affection for his little brother and a nagging homesickness, at a register just a notch or two louder than a whisper. So the "speak softly" part, he had down; it was a matter of applying the big sticks.

For that, Te'o had to navigate some mental hiccups. It was apparent from his first tackle -- dragging down Nevada's Colin Kaepernick from behind -- that he played like a deployed torpedo. Uncertainty just had him off-target.

"As a defensive player, the number one thing is being able to pull the trigger," Weis said. "Even when you know what to do, to just let it loose and go. When he first started playing he would be a little hesitant. You would see that momentary pause before he would finish off a play.

"That momentary pause is the difference between making a play and not making a play. Now that momentary pause is starting to vanish. When he sees it, he goes."

Te'o alone isn't a cure-all for a muddled Irish defense. But when he creates a high-impact presence -- like when he decisively terminated a Boston College screen pass in the fourth quarter last weekend -- it is an energy infusion that can't be overstated.

"The last three games, he's doing things he couldn't do early in the season," Irish defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said. "He just loves to play and make plays."

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Aggies Get One More Commit

Less than 24 hours after securing a verbal commitment from Jordan quarterback Alex Hart, Utah State’s football team received another pledge.

Pleasant Grove tight end/defensive end Jason Fanaika verbally committed to the Aggies on Tuesday night.

“I just felt more comfortable there with everything that’s happening and coach (Gary) Andersen turning their program around,” Fanaika said. “I like the offensive coordinator (Dave Baldwin), he’s a really good guy.”

Andersen and his staff now have seven in-state recruits already committed for the 2010 signing class.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Fanaika is following in his teammate’s footsteps. This past summer, Pleasant Grove offensive lineman Bryce Walker verbally committed to Andersen and the Aggies.

“He’s a big reason why I committed,” Fanaika said of Walker. “... He’s been going up to all the home games and he’s been telling me that it’s looking good up there and the program looks more aggressive, like everything’s been turned around.

“He told me the atmosphere is so different than anywhere he’s been, so I want to go up there and try to help the team get to the promised land like coach Andersen has been talking about.”

Similar to what he’s doing at Pleasant Grove — on both sides of the ball.

Fanaika has caught 15 passes for 238 yards and five touchdowns for the 7-1 Vikings. Defensively, he’s recorded 14 tackles and four sacks.

Pleasant Grove, which won its first seven games before falling to Lone Peak last week, concludes the regular season Friday against Alta.

“We’re doing good,” Fanaika said. “Our coaches are doing a good job, our team’s just been getting the job done. We’ve got a big game this week.”

Fanaika, whose cousin went to USU, was also offered by Utah. He had been talking to BYU, as well.

Fanaika, who is a member of the LDS Church, said he’s undecided on serving a mission.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

UH Gets Prep Linebacker: T.J. Taimatuia

The Warriors defied the odds by securing a commitment from a top California high school linebacker.

"I'm excited to go play for the green and black," said T.J. Taimatuia of Artesia High.

Taimatuia is 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds. He is capable of running 40 yards in 4.7 seconds, and squat-lifting 410 pounds.

Last season, he amassed 95 tackles and five sacks in nine regular-season games. He was named the Suburban League's 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. He also was selected to the CIF Southern Section all-star team.

But this year, Artesia has struggled, and a coaching change recently was made. Still, Taimatuia received strong interest from Arizona, California, UCLA, Utah and Washington.

But Taimatuia said it was an easy decision to pick his favorite college team.

"Ever since I was 9 or 10, I've watched Hawai'i," Taimatuia said. "I've always liked the way they've played and the way their coaches coach."

Taimatuia has several relatives living in Hawai'i.

Taimatuia's cousin is David Katina, a defensive end who plays for Fa'asao Marist High in American Samoa. Last month, Katina made a verbal commitment to play for the Warriors in 2010.

"I used to sleep over at his house," Taimatuia said. "I never thought that, years down the line, it would play out like this. I thank God for everything that's happened in my life. Every day, I work hard and thank the Lord. I give him all of the glory. I'm thankful for this opportunity to play for Hawai'i."

Taimatuia's parents still live in American Samoa. He stays with an aunt, Laurie Saleaeaga, in California.

"I miss the island life and the beach," Taimatuia said.

He said White Plains is his favorite beach.

As for hobbies, he said, "I'm Samoan. I love to eat."

Ryan Zerbel, Artesia's assistant principal and assistant football coach, praised Taimatuia as a student and athlete.

"He's a natural linebacker," Zerbel said. "He has a real nose for the ball. He has a tremendous natural talent. He's a great kid. He's hardworking, respectful. He'll be a good future player for the Warriors."

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Iupati, Vandal Seniors, Have Paid Their Dues

Moscow, Idaho, with a population of about 24,000, is a tough town in which to hide, especially if you are Mike Iupati.

A mere description of "Big Mike," an offensive guard on the Idaho football team, doesn't do him justice. Yes, he's 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds, but that's only part of it. The native of American Samoa, whose name is pronounced "Ee-you-PAH-tee," doesn't appear to have any fat on him, which seems impossible for someone who weighs 325. His head and shoulders, though, are disproportionately large. Three-hundred-and-twenty-five-pound men don't have V-shaped physiques. He does.

He is, quite simply, a mammoth man, which belies his soft-spoken and princely nature.

"He's super nice," quarterback Nate Enderle said. "He'd do anything for you."

What he wanted to do mostly the past three years was win, but that wasn't in the cards for the perpetually rebuilding Vandals. Iupati, who arrived in 2006 and saw limited playing time his freshman year, has been on teams that went a combined 7-29 from 2006-2008.

Give the townsfolk of Moscow credit for basic smarts, though. Whenever the gentle giant went downtown or walked across campus, no one ever said, "Hey, Iupati, you guys ever gonna win again?" Iupati would not have reacted, but why tempt fate?

It's easier to go to the movies or a restaurant or take a stroll across campus these days. The Vandals, who face Nevada at Mackay Stadium on Saturday, are off to a 6-1 start, 3-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, and have become a bit of a national media darling.

"It's nice to have all the community with us and not against us," said Iupati, who is rated as the top offensive guard in the country by, which projects him as a first- or second-round draft pick next April. "Everyone is complimenting us on how good we did last weekend, telling us, 'Keep up the good work. We're proud of you guys.' It's really nice seeing the Vandals (fans) have faith again.

"It's amazing how people listen to you. They never pointed fingers at us. But people listen now, especially when you win. It's fun to win."

Iupati, who moved to the States when he was 14, graduated from Western High in Anaheim, Calif., and arrived at Idaho weighing 340 pounds. He was recruited by some Pac-10 schools that he said backed off when they learned that he might not qualify academically.

He is the face of an offensive line that is a big reason why the Vandals are already bowl eligible (minimum six victories). Four of them are seniors who have a combined seven years of starting experience.

"Our offensive line unit is very close," Iupati said. "We communicate well with each other."

Three of the seniors -- Adam Juratovac, Irvin Stevens III and Bryce Sinclair -- all redshirted, which means they have been at Idaho since 2005. When Robb Akey arrived in 2007 he was their third coach in three years. He was also the fourth coach in a five-year stretch. Now in his third season, he's brought stability to the program.

"These kids had seen a lot of change," Akey said. "When you tell them you're going to do something, you'd better make sure you do it. I told them, 'I'm not going to give you a long list of rules. I'm not the principal or the sheriff. Just do the right thing.' ... Building that trust, that's one of the first things we had to get accomplished."

Iupati and his fellow seniors share a unique and fulfilling bond. There are only 11 of them -- Akey's first recruiting class is made up of juniors and redshirt sophomores -- and they'll leave Idaho, presumably after a bowl game, with a tremendous sense of pride.

"All the hard work we've put in, it means a lot to me," Iupati said in regards to being the first class to turn things around. "I feel like I've accomplished something before I leave."

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

V.J. Fehoko Set For Texas Tech Visit

V.J. Fehoko has had a top five in place for a number of weeks now, so the next step is planning the long trips from Hawaii to go see the campuses.

The Farrington (Honolulu) inside linebacker told Sporting News at the beginning of his senior season that Texas Tech, Utah, Utah State, Hawaii and UCLA made up his top five. He told SN this week that Washington has since replaced UCLA.

He now has an official visit set up with Texas Tech in late November. His brother, Sam Fehoko, plays for the Red Raiders.

"I think it should be a good visit to Texas Tech," Fehoko (6-0/220) told SN. "If we keep winning, I think (Nov. 20) is still a bye week, even though we would be in the playoffs. I think by losing all their real big star players, (Texas Tech has) come down some since last year, but that was nice to see them upset Nebraska. That opened my eyes. They've proven themselves this year."

As far as the other schools on his list, he may not take visits to those schools until he finishes his senior season. Right now, the playoffs are first on his mind.

"I wish it was done," Fehoko said. "But at the same time I don't want to make the wrong deceision. I need to go see the programs for myself, to see if that's where I really want to be. You have coaches calling you daily, weekly, and it kind gets frustrating at times, but I'm pretty sure I'm sticking to my guns to wait it out."

Fehoko told fans what they could expect from him on the field.

"If I see you on the field, and you have opposite colors, I'm real nasty," Fehoko said. "I have no remorse. I want to dominate you. I play really smart football, and never take off plays. I'm pretty quick and strong. Those are my strengths on the field."

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Project One Hope

The University of Utah Student-athlete Advisory Committee, the Utah Alumni Association and the Polynesian Coaches Association are teaming up for a project called "Project One Hope" during Saturday's Utah-Air Force game. Members of each group will be collecting donations for families affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami that devastated the islands of American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga.

Many of Utah's football players have ties to the islands and some lost family members in the tragedy.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

BYU Dismisses Safety Te'o

BYU has dismissed defensive back Shiloah Te’o from the team after a violation of team rules.

The school did not elaborate on the situation.

Te’o, a 5-foot-10, 206-pound sophomore from Laie, Hawaii, has played in all of BYU’s games this season as a reserve safety. He has five tackles, including one tackle for a loss.

Last season, Te’o played in 11 games on special teams recording five tackles and one fumble recovery.

Te’o is the cousin of Notre Dame freshman linebacker Manti Te’o.

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Early Look @ Iupati

Mike Iupati wants to clear up one misconception right away: Back in American Samoa, most people aren’t huge.

Quite the opposite, actually. They do hard, physical labor. They don’t have an unending buffet line of food.

But when Samoans come to America, something happens. Iupati has seen it over and over again.

“They tend to eat all (the food they can),” he says. “It’s like heaven to them.”

So imagine Iupati’s reaction the first day he arrived in the U.S., as a 6-foot, 200-pound 14-year-old, when his family took him to Burger King. He already couldn’t fathom how large everything in Southern California seemed, but this was the topper.

“Our uncle bought a hamburger for us and it was just humongous,” Iupati says, laughing at the memory. “Now I look at the same hamburger and it’s so small. I’m like, ‘What happened to the big ones they used to serve?’ ”

It’s amusing now, of course, that Iupati used to be fascinated by size. These days it’s his mountainous frame that has people — particularly NFL scouts — buzzing.

The University of Idaho’s celebrated left guard is 6-6, 330 pounds and lean enough to pass for a heavyweight MMA fighter. His imposing stature and nimble feet have made him one of the top interior offensive line prospects for next year’s NFL draft.

In some ways, though, Iupati’s rise is as unlikely as the Vandals’ ongoing revival. He didn’t play organized football until he was 14, and he wasn’t even aware that American universities gave out football scholarships until a few years before he enrolled at the Moscow school.

Nonetheless, he could be one of the first 50 players drafted in the spring.

“We’ve had some good offensive linemen where I’ve coached,” UI coach Robb Akey says. “He would be one of the best that ever played for us.”

The thing is, Iupati almost never took a snap for Akey.


As a senior at Anaheim’s Western High, Iupati was a well-known football commodity. But a lackluster academic profile — hurt by his lack of proficiency with English — turned away Pac-10 suitors, namely Arizona.

He settled on Idaho after the persistence of assistant Johnny Nansen and spent his first year sorting out classroom issues.

By 2006, when Iupati joined the football team, he was caught in the middle of a dizzying coaching shuffle, with Nick Holt and Dennis Erickson both making short-lived stays. The chaos almost prompted him to transfer.

“My freshman year, I wasn’t playing and Coach Holt left,” he says. “I just figured I would leave too because I hated it. I honestly hated Idaho.”

That dislike eventually waned, largely because of the close bond Iupati, 22, formed with teammates with similar Polynesian backgrounds. The brotherhood, as players call it, took root early in Iupati’s career and has branched out to include seven or eight current Vandals.

“On the field we have a brotherhood; off the field we have another one,” linebacker JoJo Dickson says. “It helps to have people to fall back on sometimes, you know? It gets stressful with school and football.”

As is he is on Idaho’s offensive line, Iupati is the unquestioned leader with his Polynesian teammates. He organizes barbecues in the offseason, often grilling steaks, chicken and sausage with a distinct marinade centered on soy sauce and onions.

The summer barbecues and river trips became such big hits that other teammates starting coming as well.

“I came in and I took most of them in,” Iupati says. “I’m Polynesian and that’s why they respect me a lot, and they look at me as a brother.”

The soft-spoken offensive captain made it an emphasis to build a family atmosphere with his teammates. It was the only thing he knew to do.


He grew up as the third of four children to Belinda and Aposetolo Iupati, who moved their family to the U.S. from the remote South Pacific territory for better education and career opportunities.

Mike’s younger brother, Andrew, is a defensive tackle at Oregon and Junior, the eldest son, ended his career at the junior-college level after a series of knee injuries.

With their children away, the Iupatis have struggled financially while living in Stanton, Calif., just outside of Anaheim. Aposetolo is a mechanic and Belinda is out of work.

Both have battled recent health issues.

“Sometimes I go home and look at the little things that I take advantage of here, like food and stuff like that,” Mike says. “And over there, I mean … it hurts.”

His family’s financial strain is a major motivation to earn an NFL roster spot, says Odell Harrington, a family friend and former coach to the Iupati brothers.

Harrington was with Mike this past summer when agents were calling and the reality of a future pro career was setting in. Yet even when he allowed himself to daydream for a moment, Mike’s focus was telling.

“He said to his brother, ‘When I get to the league, we’re going to eat good,’ ” Harrington recalls. “Not what car he’s going to buy, not what jewelry he’s going to buy. We’re going to eat good.

“That’s Michael,” he adds. “That’s Big Mike. He’s going to be blessed to be able to help a lot of people and I have no doubt that he will.”

But first Iupati is preoccupied with helping steer the Vandals from irrelevance to mid-major prominence. At 5-1 entering Saturday’s home game with Hawaii, they are one win from gaining bowl eligibility.

The leadership Iupati and other seniors have provided has been vital to the program’s turnaround. Just this week, the overpowering lineman delivered a message that particularly resonated with teammates.

“We’re 5-1 and I told them to never get satisfied,” he says.


Here are some other comments about and from Iupati:

Iupati on the difference from this season to years previous: “The big difference of this football team is nobody every points fingers. Offense, defense — they don’t point fingers. And I guess last weekend when the game was close and the DBs or whatever and I heard some of the offense say, Hey … I told them, ‘Don’t point fingers. This team is not going to point fingers because it’s got us to where we’re at right now familywise.’”

Akey on his improvement: “He’s playing better, and we kind of thought he would. Last year he did a good job. But if you remember last year, it was the fourth game or so when we finally got him in there. And there was a little rust that needed to get knocked off. And he did some things one-armed. One, because he could. And two, I think it was a little bit subliminal because the shoulder was fine. But he did some things that way, and he certainly has gotten better with his technique and things like that. And he’s got great confidence in his body right now. ”

Akey on the scouts’ take of Iupati: “They’re excited about him, yes. There were a number at the game last week and we had several today (at practice). I expect more at this game. … There’s going to be some personnel people show up at some of the games later in the season, so that’s very positive sign for his future. Their reports after leaving here have all been very positive. It keeps going this direction, so that’s a great thing.”

Akey on comparing Iupati: “He would have been one of the best we had when I was (at WSU). We had an Outland Trophy winner (Rien Long), but he played for me on defense. So that’s a little different. It’s two different deals. Mike’s physically stronger and bigger than what Rien Long was. But Rien Long was an effective player — Mike’s a very good player. He would be right up there with a lot of folks.”

LT Matt Cleveland on Iupati: “Mike’s really dominating. He’s huge. He’s probably one of the strongest on the team, of the strongest on the team. That besides his natural strength. He throws me around all over the field — he’s strong.”

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Polynesian Player Pool Growing

As the popularity of the NFL increases around the world, the diverse pool of players contributing to the game continues to expand.

When the Browns drafted linebackers David Veikune (52nd overall) and Kaluka Maiava (104th) in the second and fourth rounds respectively, they welcomed two new Pacific Islanders into the NFL.

"Polynesians, they're pretty strong, very powerful, physical people," Veikune said. "The NFL's a very physical game, so I think they put two and two together and started recruiting over there."

"We're just people trying to play football and have a job," said Maiava. "I don't know if we're the chosen few or anything. We're just trying to make a living."

The Bengals, this Sunday's opponent and the Browns' in-state rival, added a player of Samoan descent when they selected linebacker Rey Maualuga with the sixth pick in the second round (No. 38 overall).

Maualuga played linebacker next to Maiava at the University of Southern California and knows what his fellow Samoan brings to the field.

"Kaluka's a great linebacker in my eyes, an undersized linebacker, but has a lot of heart and determination to get things done," Maualuga said in a teleconference Wednesday. "He's a playmaker. Given the opportunity, he will make plays."

Veikune is a native of Wahiawa on the Island of Oahu, while Maiava hails from Wailuku on Maui. Maiava also has roots in American Samoa and proudly displays his heritage with tattoos around his right arm and leg.

In addition to Maualuga, Bengals defensive tackles Jonathan Fanene and Domata Peko are also of Samoan descent.

They are the latest players with roots in the Pacific trying to make an impact at the NFL level. Last season, almost 30 Polynesian players played in the NFL.

Steelers free safety Troy Polamalu has been one of the more high-profile Samoan players to compete in the NFL. He has 438 career tackles, 332 solo stops and 7 quarterback sacks over his seven seasons in Pittsburgh. He has 18 interceptions and returned one for a touchdown during the 2004 season.

Before Polamalu was bothering quarterbacks with blitzes off the edge or providing big hits to receivers going across the middle of the field, linebacker Junior Seau was setting the standard for Samoan players.

Seau played in the NFL from 1990 to 2008 with the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots. During his career, Seau collected 56.5 quarterback sacks and 18 interceptions.

With the success of Hawaiian and Samoan players in the NFL, more people are paying attention to high school and college football in that region. Every coach who scouts in the area is trying to land the next big star from the islands.

"In Samoa, a lot of coaches go over there to recruit out of college," said Veikune. "A lot of guys are getting opportunities that they used to not get before."

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Seau is Newest Return Man

He has taken on a number of interesting sports jobs for his Versus TV show, which will debut Dec. 2.

He has been a member of Scott Dixon’s pit crew, Natalie Gulbis’s caddie, a Los Angeles Dodgers bat boy, an equipment manager with the Washington Capitals, a member of the bull gang at TD Garden, and a rodeo clown on the Pro Bull Riders tour, getting first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be bulldozed by a rip-snorting Brahma.

But the only sports job that Junior Seau was really meant to have was NFL linebacker.

And Versus reported yesterday that the 40-year-old Seau had signed a contract with the Patriots to play a 20th NFL season, although the team did not announce the transaction or make a corresponding move to make room on the 53-man roster.

“I’m very fortunate and honored to be involved with two class organizations - the New England Patriots and Versus,’’ said Seau in a press release. “I want to thank the management of both for making my return to the NFL with the New England Patriots a reality.’’

While coach Bill Belichick declined to confirm the signing, saying, “We don’t have anything to say about it,’’ CEO and chairman Robert Kraft seemed to indicate it was only a formality.

Asked at the league meetings in Boston if Seau was a Patriot again, Kraft said, “I hope he is. At some point he will be.’’

Asked if Seau ranked as one of his favorite players, Kraft said, “Oh yeah, he gave a speech to our group. He gives speeches to the players in the locker room and there aren’t many coaches that could inspire and motivate other players. He is a unique individual with a unique physical frame and unique mental acumen. I’d love to have him part of our team for as long as he wants to be.’’

Seau, who came out of retirement to play four games for the Patriots last season, would be on his fourth tour in Foxborough. He played 11 games in 2006 before suffering an arm injury, and played all 16 games in 2007.

Patriots player personnel director Nick Caserio confirmed only that the team had worked out Seau recently and had him take a physical.

“The reality is, we’re just trying to see where the player’s level of physical conditioning may be and whether he’s in good enough shape to make it through a practice,’’ Caserio said. “He looked like he’s kept himself in shape.’’

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Moeaki Shines in Iowa Win

Tony Moeaki has dislocated his elbow and injured his wrist, he has broken his foot and strained his calf, and most recently, he has sprained his ankle. His body is marred with scars, his career is littered with "What if's,"� his name is synonymous with bad luck. But on Saturday night, all of that was seemingly forgotten.

The man whose teammates call him a "freak,"� played on Saturday for the first time in nearly a month. This time, it was an ankle injury that held back the senior.

Like his 10-catch, 83-yard in Iowa's season-opener against Northern Iowa, Moeaki found nearly every crevasse in Greg Robinson's porous Michigan defense en route to a career night.

"He came back with a bang,"� said Erik Campbell, Iowa's wide receivers and tight ends coach.

In Iowa's 30-28 win over the Wolverines, Moeaki served as a sparkplug for a Hawkeye offense that was badly missing its star tight end. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi looked to Moeaki early and often, especially down the middle of the field.

On the game's second drive, the duo hooked up for a 34-yard touchdown pass, and to seal the game, Stanzi found Moeaki, who the quarterback said was his third option on the play, wide open on a drag route. Forty-two yards later, Moeaki had put the Hawkeyes up 30-28 with 13:06 remaining.

"When he slips out into the open for passes, he's great at catching the football, getting on the run, and getting to the end zone,"� Stanzi said. "He has a knack for finding the end zone."�

Hawkeye fans have only seen that knack in glimpses. There was his 35-yard catch from quarterback Drew Tate in 2006 - only the second touchdown grab of his then-young career.

There was, most memorably, his eight-catch, 112-yard, three-touchdown performance against Syracuse in 2007. Two games later, he was lost for the season with an elbow and wrist injuries. And then there was Saturday, when Moeaki again shredded a secondary for 100-plus yards and two touchdowns.

It was the Moeaki fans had expected to see when he came on campus as one of the centerpieces of Iowa's heralded 2005 recruiting class.

"To be honest, it was just nice to be out there with my teammates,"� Moeaki said. "Running out of the tunnel with my teammates is always really special to me."�

What gets lost is the tight end's performance on Saturday is his blocking ability. On Iowa's opening drive of the second half, running back Adam Robinson ran for 40 yards on three carries, leading to Daniel Murray's third field goal of the evening.

On that drive and on several other occasions, Robinson was running to Moeaki's side of the line, clearing out seemingly every Wolverine defender in his way.

"I haven't been around a better one, personally, and that's at any level,"� head coach Kirk Ferentz said of the tight end's blocking ability. "I think he's really good, really good."�

Wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos added, "[He's] unbelievable. " The guy is one of the best teammates I've ever played with as far as talent and for the love of the game. It's amazing. There's nothing about Tony that's a fluke. "Every time he gets a chance, he makes plays."�

Indeed, over the past five seasons, Moeaki has been one of Iowa's biggest offensive weapons "” when he has played. His contributes have been limited by his injuries, but it's on nights like Saturday when Hawkeye fans truly get to marvel at what a healthy Moeaki can do to opposing defenses.

"I'll definitely savor this game for sure,"� Moeaki said. "It was a blast."�

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Friday, October 9, 2009

Sopoaga Savors More Than a Win

The shutout was important to Isaac Sopoaga. The phone call was vital. The call arrived Saturday afternoon, roughly 24 hours before Sopoaga put on his 49ers uniform to play the St. Louis Rams.

All week long, Sopoaga had been waiting for word from his family in American Samoa. Tuesday morning, a tsunami had slammed the island nation. Sopoaga's village of Fagasa is an isolated fishing community. Communications were down.

"I was worried," Sopoaga said. "Not sad. Not scared. Worried. Worried."

Finally, while Sopoaga was at the 49ers' walk-through practice Saturday, his mother reached his wife. Everyone was safe.

"They're good," Sopoaga said Sunday. "The water stopped, like, 15 yards from their house. It hit one building where my cousins worked, but they escaped. The water didn't touch them."

Worried no more, Sopoaga celebrated by doing what he does best. He lined up at defensive end Sunday and — with his teammates — made the St. Louis Rams' lives completely miserable.

How miserable? In the 35-0 rout, St. Louis' offense never made it inside the 49ers' 20-yard line.

In other words, the tsunami surge came closer to the Sopoaga home in Fagasa than the Rams' offense ever came to the goal line at Candlestick Park.

And, no, Sopoaga did not mind the somewhat flip analogy.

"I feel great about today," Sopoaga said. "We got to do what we do. We were out there having fun."

In this young 49ers season that has provided several unexpected story lines, Sunday actually was one of the more predictable outcomes. The winless Rams are a very bad football team. But the 49ers made sure the Rams stayed very bad, from start to finish.

Sopoaga and his defensive colleagues deserved most of the credit. As the 49ers' offense continued to search for an elusive groove, their defense held the Rams to 177 net offensive yards and nine first downs — resulting in the first 49ers shutout victory since the 2001 season.

"A shutout is the ultimate for any defense," said linebacker Manny Lawson.

"Once we got to the fourth quarter," said lineman Ray McDonald, "we needed to get a goose egg and show everybody we were for real."

McDonald helped cement that real-ness by picking up a fumble and scoring a touchdown. But to show you what kind of game it was, that play didn't even qualify as the day's best defensive highlight.

Nope. That one belonged to linebacker Patrick Willis, who snatched an interception and sprinted 23 yards for another six points. Also, as usual, Willis continued to tackle every moving object in his field of vision. For the 49ers, this strategy seems to be working well.

Willis wasn't truly everywhere, of course. It just seemed that way. Over and over, Willis hauled down steamroller St. Louis running back Steven Jackson. Three times, Willis reached quarterback Kyle Boller behind the line of scrimmage and sacked him. Then came the pick-six capper.

"Today was one of the better games that I have had since I've been in the league," Willis said. "But it wasn't just me. It was our defense altogether. "... It was just a day where you just say, 'Wow.' "

That "wow" factor began in the trenches with Sopoaga and McDonald, then spread back through the linebackers and the safeties.

As you might expect, this still wasn't "wow" enough for coach Mike Singletary.

"Don't misunderstand me," Singletary said. "I'm excited about our defense. But because I know them and know what they're capable of, I just don't want our guys to go, 'Hey, we're there.' We're going in the right direction. But there's so much more that we can do."

Imagine, then, what Singletary must think of the offense. Clearly, running back Frank Gore is missed. However, quarterback Shaun Hill keeps managing the ball safely enough. He had no interceptions Sunday and threw for two touchdowns. And he was properly grateful for his defensive teammates.

"I love watching them play," Hill said.

For now, at least, the 49ers have indeed found a formula that works. Namely: If the defense plays relentlessly wicked football, the offense can give them just enough oomph to win. It's why they are 3-1 for the first time since 2002, their last winning season.

Sopoaga, a quiet man, probably exemplifies the 49ers' team mojo as much as anyone. He is serious about building a new reputation for the team. Serious enough that he could compartmentalize his concerns for his family in Samoa and concentrate on the game plan.

"Isaac is a high-spirited guy," said McDonald. "He's not too big on bringing his personal life into his football. But we want to support him any way we can."

Sunday, they supported him by supporting each other and slamming the Rams. It's why Sopoaga could leave the locker room with a smile on his face. For many reasons.

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Seahawks' Tatupu to Donate to Tsunami Relief

Seattle Seahawks defensive star Lofa Tatupu is donating up to $10,000 to aid disaster relief efforts in the Pacific Rim region.

Coach Jim Mora said Wednesday his three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker is volunteering to match the first $10,000 that fans donate in a collection drive started by the Seahawks and Medical Teams International.

Tatupu's father, former NFL player Mosi Tatupu, was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and Lofa Tatupu says he still has family there. Last week, a deadly tsunami hit the U.S. territory, as well as neighboring Samoa and Tonga.

The Seahawks are inviting fans to donate on their way into the stadium for Sunday's home game against Jacksonville.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Notre Dame Students Rally Around Te'o

There are 2,059 freshmen trying to find their way on the expansive 1,250-acre University of Notre Dame campus this fall.

And, then, there is Manti Te'o, who has already been wholeheartedly embraced by it.

"We love the guy," said Grant Schmidt, the student body president.

"He's practically a legend with the students," said Brian Hardin, the school's football information director.

To watch the student section's response to his play in yesterday's 37-30 overtime victory over Washington, where he was the second-leading tackler with 10, was to witness a remarkable Tweet-age love affair between the hard-hitting former Punahou School linebacker and students hopeful he can help revive the proud winning tradition at college football's most storied school. "We haven't seen anything like it since we've been here," head coach Charlie Weis said.

The students in Notre Dame Stadium's northwest end might not be able to pronounce his first name, but they know "Manti from Hawai'i" and have rallied around him as a symbol of what Irish defense can become.

When Te'o arrived on campus this summer, termed the school's best recruit at linebacker since Bob Crable in 1978 by a national recruiting analyst, the student paper, The Observer, headlined it, "The Manti Commeth."

Just the prospect of the 6-foot-2, 244-pound Te'o, who was heralded as the top high school defensive player in the nation last season by USA Today, coming to play beneath the Golden Dome had an energizing effect on the student body. It hatched a plan to hand out 8,000 plastic lei the November weekend he was to take his recruiting visit last year. But school officials, nervous the move could invite NCAA sanctions, scotched the plan.

No matter, the students shouted their interest in him from the bleachers even as they were lobbing snowballs at the coaching staff and players during the team's loss to downtrodden Syracuse. Yet, on national letter of intent day, students watching ESPN and on the internet were jubilant that Te'o not only reversed the trend of 11th-hour big name signing day losses but snubbed rival USC in doing it.

Then, in the season opener, Te'o laid on a couple of big, validating hits that they have come to call "the full Manti." "From his tackle on his first play, the entire student section was behind him," said Matt Gamber, sports editor of the campus paper. "He showed very quickly he belonged with his speed and big-hitting ability, and I think the fact that we haven't seen a ton of him on a consistent basis just yet only adds to the mystique, if you will, surrounding him."

From that time, fans have joined the students in clamoring for more playing time for their hero. "Increase the dosage of Manti," a letter writer to the student paper implored. "More Manti," the internet postings demand.

On a largely white campus where "Hawaiian Oasis Authentic Shaved Ice" passes for exotic, "I also believe that the fact that he is (from Hawai'i) adds a lot of allure to him," said Kevin Doyle, a student.

Notre Dame does not make freshmen available for interviews the first part of the season, but teammates say Te'o has handled the attention surprisingly well. "You'd expect someone like that, who has been told for years that he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, to be a little arrogant," said cornerback Mike Anello. "But he is the antithesis of what of what you'd expect from a kid like that. He's down to earth and has worked his tail off since he got here and I like that about him."

When it was over last night, the victory against Washington sealed, Te'o raced to the end zone and waved to family members and the student section. Already, they have become like family, too.

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Spartans Coach Loses Family in Tsunami

San Jose State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a got a phone call just as a football staff meeting was breaking up last week. Much of his village, Leone, on the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, was destroyed by a tsunami.

"As they were telling me the bad news my heart was breaking," the former NFL player said Monday. "I had three aunts get caught in the waves and a cousin's body was later found. By some miracle, my brother was found alive."

Salave'a left home in 1989 to play football at the University of Arizona under Dick Tomey. His father was visiting San Jose when their village was hit last week by tsunami waves that resulted from an underwater earthquake with a magnitude of up to 8.3.

The disaster killed 177 people in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

"After that came more phone calls and I tried to remain calm," Salave'a said. "I knew a lot of people there."

In 2001, when he was playing with the Tennessee Titans, Salave'a created the Joe Salave'a Foundation to promote sports programs in his native land, hosting a series of free football camps among other things.

Salave'a, one of eight children, is in the process of revamping his foundation toward relief efforts. His goal is to personally deliver, along with some of his current San Jose State players, whatever he can raise before the end of the football season.

"When you're faced with tragedy, you retreat to your family," Salave'a said. "Sometimes we get caught up in our own lifestyle but something like this puts things in perspective. The hardest thing I've had to do is call relatives the past couple of days. Those were hard phone calls to make."

Tomey, in his fifth year at San Jose State, coached Salave'a at the University of Arizona.

"This hits you in so many ways," Tomey said. "It's a part of the world that is precious to me. It's such a tight-knitted community. Joe was a pleasure to coach and an outstanding student. He exemplified all the characteristics you look for in football player both on and off the field."

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Trends Continue

A couple of trends that emerged in the Bengals’ first three games kept going Sunday in the 23-20 overtime victory.

The defense kept coming up big inside the 20. After the Browns got the ball in the red zone in the second half on Bengals wide receiver Andre Caldwell’s fumble on a kickoff (the 18) and Browns wide receiver Josh Cribbs’ 50-yard punt return (the 14), the Bengals allowed field goals instead of touchdowns to fall behind 20-14 instead of 28-14.

“We just weren’t going to let them get anything; we played better,” said rookie SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga, who played all the way despite his sprained MCL. “No easy games in the NFL, I guess that’s what I’m finding out.”

It was a bit of an emotional game for Maualuga. Like his fellow Samoans Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene, he wore a native skirt and a shell necklace during the road trip to show solidarity with his fellow countrymen coping with the devastating earthquake on American Samoa. Maualuga wore the skirt of his late father whom died of cancer while the younger Maualuga was in college.

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Dolphins DT Soliai Mourning Deaths in Samoas

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai mourned the deaths of at least two relatives on the disaster-stricken Samoas, and fears the toll for his family could get worse.

The number of causalities among relatives of Soliai and his wife was unclear. He said virtually all of his family lives on the Pacific islands, where an earthquake and tsunami Tuesday killed at least 150 people.

"It's a pretty tough time," Soliai said Thursday. "I've been talking to some of my family members. They say there's too much damage. They're still finding more bodies.

"There are still people missing — cousins, relatives. They keep me updated."

Soliai said he has been able to reach his family by cell phone. He grew up in the hard-hit port of Pago Pago, and attended college there before being drafted by the Dolphins in 2007.

Soliai said he hasn't been home since the spring of 2008, when he visited American Samoa for four days for a football camp. A backup lineman, Soliai said the disaster will be on his mind Sunday when the winless Dolphins play the Buffalo Bills.

"This is going to motivate me," he said. "I'm going to play for my people back home and my family. It's going to be a special week for me."

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Valley Families Check on Samoa Relatives

Three young men from American Samoa -- football teammates at West Hills College in Coalinga -- were among those anxious to hear whether their families and homes survived the earthquake and tsunami.

They talked to family members Wednesday morning. Most of their families are safe, but Ronnie Faimoa lost his grandmother.

"I'm sad and I feel sorry for my island," said Faimoa, 18, from the village of Fagatogo. His grandmother lived on an island in Western Samoa.

Lauolo Tuala, 18, also from Fagatogo, said his parents were taking his younger brother and sister to school when the earthquake hit. "They all ran back home," Tuala said. Because the village is on a hillside, his home escaped damage from the tsunami.

Chester Faiai, 18, said his village, Matu'u, was destroyed. "But my family is safe," he said. His parents grabbed his younger sister and brother and other family members and ran up hill to safety.

"It's the first time a hard-shaking earthquake that big has hit Samoa," he said.

The Fresno-Madera Counties Chapter of the American Red Cross is sending three volunteers to Samoa, said director Ellen Knapp.

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