SEATTLE – Mike Iupati didn’t plan on making his professional football career one grand tour of the NFC West, but when his contract expired with the Arizona Cardinals last spring, the veteran offensive guard had two simple requirements for his agent.
Wherever Iupati was headed next, the former Idaho standout wanted to block for a top-tier quarterback. Secondly, signing with a playoff contender was a priority for someone who’d missed the postseason three consecutive years – this coming after Iupati went to three straight NFC Championship games and a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers
The first phone call Iupati fielded must have felt like an NFC West match made in heaven.
“Seattle called me the first day of free agency,” Iupati said last Monday from the Seahawks’ locker room after a resilient 37-30 win over Minnesota. “… I’m just blessed to be here. I’m grateful for this organization, the coaching staff. It’s been awesome.”
When Iupati inked a one-year deal with the Seahawks on March 14, the 10th-year pro checked off both boxes. Seattle had no shortage of stability under center with franchise quarterback Russell Wilson, who’s since emerged as an NFL MVP candidate playing behind an offensive line anchored by Iupati, and the Seahawks – young but ambitious – were trending in the right direction after an NFC wild-card loss to Dallas last season.
There were a few other nonfinancial incentives tucked into Iupati’s one-year, $2.75 million contract: proximity to his offseason residence in Boise – what Iupati calls “home home” – and proximity to his alma mater in Moscow.
Iupati recently returned to the University of Idaho during his bye week, which luckily overlapped with the Vandals’ Senior Day game against Sacramento State. The big, lumbering offensive guard was invited to speak to Paul Petrino’s team the day prior. Idaho lost 31-7 with Iupati in attendance and finished the year with a sub-.500 record.
In that regard, the Vandals are in a better spot than they were entering Iupati’s senior season on the Palouse. Idaho won three games in 2007 and ’08 – one the first season, two the next – but made an improbable leap the next season to notch nine wins under Petrino’s predecessor, Robb Akey, and beat Bowling Green in a dramatic Humanitarian Bowl.
So there’s hope yet for Petrino’s program – something Iupati wanted to drive home in an empowering message to a group of UI players who are in a position he’s all too familiar with.
“Every time I get a chance to talk to them, I get always emotional because I’ve been there. We’ve been through a season where we only won two games or one game,” Iupati said. “But we pushed every year … It’s just a matter of trying, have good recruits. They’ve just got to keep grinding, working hard.”
Iupati’s made 12 starts in 13 games this season for the Seahawks, who just gave up their lead in the NFC West to San Francisco, one of the two divisional foes who’ve employed the ex-Idaho guard since he became a pro in 2010. The American Samoa native who relocated to Anaheim, California, with his family as a junior in high school and didn’t pick up football until he arrived in the United States was the 17th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Iupati, who barely qualified for college out of high school, bucked the odds to make four Pro Bowl appearances and earn NFL first-team All-Pro recognition in 2012.
He blocked for Colin Kaepernick in Super Bowl XLVII, a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Iupati hasn’t kept in contact with his ex-teammate, but he said, “I hope (Kaepernick) gets picked up.”
Now he has the task of protecting another mobile NFC West passer, Wilson, who brings fans to their feet when he uses his own legs but simultaneously forces Iupati to work harder downfield when Seattle’s $35 million man takes off running.
“You’ve just got to block, man,” Iupati said. “Just play through the whistle. Just be smart with your hands.”
A regular-season finale against Iupati’s first NFL club, and top division rival, may determine whether the Seahawks go into the playoffs as NFC West champions or, for the second straight year, as wild-card hopefuls needing to pull off a road win to stay alive.
Seattle’s season has been thrilling for its rabid fan base, if for no other reason than because nine of the 10 wins have come by eight points or fewer.
“Obviously, we like close games,” Iupati laughed. “But man, our team has so much confidence. When we’re down, it’s just, ‘Next play.’ We’re just so confident and not worrying about anything. We just play, because we’re playing for 60 minutes.”
A move to the Los Angeles Rams would put the final stamp on Iupati’s NFC West passport, but the ex-Vandal feels at peace in Seattle, and more important, at home in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s always positive, that’s what I like about Seattle,” he said. “Everything is positive. Fun dudes. We’re correcting stuff that we need to correct, but we’ll move forward and have a positive attitude.”
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