Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two-way Sopoaga?

One of the most intriguing players on the 49ers roster has to be nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. The presence he carries easily dwarfs his 6-foot-2, 330 pound frame. He is the enforcer among his defensive teammates, though no one outside of the team will ever see. He combines the ideals of faith, family and team in nearly every response to a reporter's question. He proudly wears an 'ula, a traditional Samoan necklace, to celebrate his culture. He is the only one who plays music aloud in the locker room. And the stories about his unusual strength are reaching Paul Bunyan status, or whatever the equivalent of Paul Bunyan is in Samoan circles.

During Camp Alex at San Jose State over the summer, I was chatting with the Spartans director of strength and conditioning, Chris Holder, on the sideline while the players ran drills on the field. Holder oversaw the weight room when the players came in to lift during the lockout and would help them stretch and warm up for the day's practice. During our conversation, I asked him if anything stood out to him during the weeks he had worked with the 49ers players. It took him less than three seconds to respond "Isaac Sopoaga". Holder said he had never seen a stronger player. "Ice", as his teammates call him, can push, pull or carry mind boggling amounts of weight and do so deftly, Holder explained. He had never seen anything like it, and he is not the first in his line of work to tell me this.

As I saw fullback Moran Norris limp around the locker room on his injured leg this week, my mind started wandering as I thought about the 49ers running game. I remembered that Sopoaga, had lined up as a fullback last season during the game against the Raiders. He blocked for Frank Gore and Gore easily got the first down. Sopoaga was standing at his locker so I went over and asked him, when the 49ers are in short yardage or goal line situations, are there any plans to use him in the same or similar capacity this season? Sopoaga smiled and said, there might be. He said he is always watching when the offense is in those situations in case he is called upon. He hopes to be. Sopoaga has never played on an offensive line, but has played a lot of rugby. I can hold three or four men at a time in a scrum, Sopoaga said, I have no problem moving one or two 300 pound guys out of the way.

While we talked, I had to ask him how far he can throw a football. Last October while the team was in London for the game against the Broncos, I watched Sopoaga on the field of Wembley Stadium during early warm ups effortlessly throw the ball, 40, 50 yards again and again. Just having a catch with fellow lineman Will Tukuafu. Alex Smith was injured the week before and was out. Troy Smith was going to make his first start for the 49ers, and some of my colleagues and I laughingly wondered if Sopoaga was the third quarterback. The idea may not have been so far fetched.

I can throw 78 yards flat footed, Sopoaga told me. He did so in San Diego during the preseason. Add another several yards - at least - if he steps into it. And how Sopoaga came to throw so far is almost as amazing as the fact he can throw so far. As a kid growing up in Pago Pago, Sopoaga couldn't climb coconut trees to pick the fruit because they were often so slippery. Instead, he would find a one or two pound rock and heave it at the coconuts, up to 70 feet at the coconuts he said, to knock them down. His aim and arm strength improved over time to the point that he can get five or six coconuts to fall in a five minute period. Sopoaga doesn't know what his accuracy would be like in a game, but believes that if he can hit a coconut from 70 feet out with a small rock, he should be able to connect with a larger human target.

I have no idea if Jim Harbaugh has any plan to use Sopoaga's unusual skills to benefit the offense, and even if I asked, he wouldn't say. But if he did, wouldn't that be another story to tell.

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