MODESTO — Mike Iupati, one of the cornerstones of the San Francisco 49ers' return to the ranks of the NFL's elite, took part in another rebuilding project Saturday.
The guard, selected 17th overall out of Idaho in the 2010 draft, spent the morning practicing with the Davis High football team, trying to help the once-powerful Spartans return to the top of the Modesto Metro Conference.
Iupati practiced with the Spartans from 10 a.m. to noon in heat approaching 100 degrees. A nice breeze made it tolerable, but by 11, the breeze was gone, presumably to search for shade.
The 26-year-old Iupati was in town as part of a Gatorade promotion, the grand prize in a contest that awarded a two-hour practice session to a lucky team in the Northern California region. He showed up early, stayed late, then did what he does best — opened a hole for about 100 fans when he invited them onto the field for pictures and autographs, further delaying his escape to an air-conditioned vehicle.
"It's all about hard work," said Iupati, who spoke to about 55 members of the Spartans program before breaking into smaller practice groups. "These kids are playing for something — their school, their families — and now they're playing for pride."
Over the past three seasons, the Spartans have won only six games while losing 24, dealing with dwindling enrollment and shrinking rosters. The ultimate kick to the ribs came last year when difference-maker running back Rey Vega transferred to Central Catholic High — even though it meant sitting out the first six games of the season — and helped the Raiders win a state championship.
"We can't be worried about what happened in the past … we're looking forward," said Principal Mike Rich. "At other schools, you might be second string, but at Davis, you can be sure of one thing: You're going to play."
Like the 300 Spartan warriors at the Battle of Thermopylae, who were hopelessly outnumbered by Xerxes' army of 100,000, these Spartans will be outmanned just about every week.
"Well, things didn't turn out so well for them," said Rich, noting that despite their bravery, the ancient Spartans eventually were annihilated.
But winning wasn't the point 2,500 years ago. It's not the point now.
"It's about picking yourself up," said senior guard Erick Marquez, who more than any other player seemed unintimidated by Iupati's size — 6-foot-5, 345 pounds — or his fame. "It doesn't matter if you lose on Friday night; if you pick yourself up, you've got another chance to go out there and try to win."
Iupati worked with Marquez and other linemen — mostly on footwork, balance and leverage.
"Size matters, but it's all about leverage," Iupati said.
He told the players to make the most of their practice time: "If you're going to mess up, mess up going full speed."
And he told them to be physical. "Physical fixes everything!" he said before letting loose a sinister little laugh.
He also answered the question, "Who's the toughest defensive lineman you ever faced?"
"Justin Smith," said the All-Pro of his All-Pro teammate. "Every single day in practice."
He later clarified that of all the defensive linemen not wearing scarlet and gold, Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens — the 49ers' opponent in Super Bowl XLVII — ranks at the top of the list.
Even though Davis' offensive linemen garnered the most attention from Iupati, he made an impact on players at other positions, too.
"I just appreciate that he taught the offensive linemen that are blocking for me," said junior quarterback Zach Magaña. "I told them all, 'Make sure you pay attention.' "
Before leaving, Iupati stressed to the players the importance of hard work on the field, but that it had to be balanced with hard work in the classroom. And then he promised, "I'll be watching you guys this season."
This seemed to inspire fullback/linebacker Jordan Evers, who, despite the many obstacles Davis faces, predicted big things for the 2013 Spartans.
"We'll give you something to write about this year," Evers said. "Quote me."
Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2380.
THE IUPATI FILE• BORN: May 12, 1987, in Vaitogi, American Samoa
• HEIGHT: 6 feet 5 inches tall
• WEIGHT: 345 pounds
• HIGH SCHOOL: Western (Anaheim)
• COLLEGE: University of Idaho
• LIVES IN: San Jose
• PERSONAL: Married, with one son