City of Iowa, Iowa – Several youths dressed in black and gold called out to Sam LaPorta as he left the field at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday. The senior tight end walked over and gave them a punch, smiled and asked how they were doing.
“I started playing football in 5th grade, probably 10 or 11,” the senior Iowa tight end said. “And it’s just cool to see a bunch of these kids here supporting us like that. They idolize us. My freshman year, I was nobody. And they’re like, ’84, 84.’ That’s a feeling cool.
The first year is when LaPorta introduced himself to Iowa fans. A 6-foot-4, 190-pound wide receiver lightly recruited from Highland High School in Highland, Ill., LaPorta finished his rookie season at Iowa with 15 catches for 188 yards.
The game that stood out was the last of the season, against USC in the Holiday Bowl. LaPorta had a team-high six catches for 44 yards in the 49-24 victory.
“As a freshman, I didn’t really know much,” LaPorta said. “I was just kind of a race course, the courses they told me to do. It seems pretty general. But it was, “Sam, go out there and do a basic route. Oh, I can do that. It was a fun memory to look back on, an 18-year-old kid racing against the Trojans of the USC.
Three seasons later, LaPorta is a much different and much better player.
“I feel like I have a more diverse role on offense,” said LaPorta, now a 249-pounder. “I understand the offense as a whole. I feel like I’ve come a long way since that USC game.
LaPorta has led the Hawkeyes in catches the past two seasons. He also led the team in receiving yards last season. A seven-catch, 122-yard performance in a 20-17 loss to Kentucky at the Citrus Bowl gave him 670 yards for the season.
With 85 career catches for 1,129 yards on his resume, LaPorta was considering putting his final season on the table and trying out for the NFL. He put his papers in and got some feedback.
“Of course, I also had to think about the opportunity it represented for my family,” LaPorta said. “But being able to come back and finish my degree and play my final year with my boys, I don’t know how I could have passed that up.”
LaPorta will bring experience and leadership to his latest Hawkeye team. If Iowa can match his winning personality, it should be a fond farewell.
“He’s got confidence, an air about him, just the way he naturally is,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s one of those guys that people gravitate towards. Some guys just have a certain talent or a certain air about them. He had this. It’s kind of ironic because he wasn’t a five-star rookie. It took us a while to figure it out. Thank God we did.
LaPorta had 50 career touchdowns at Highland and his team won 40 of 46 games. This success did not resonate with many college recruiters. That included the Iowa staff until Edwardsville High School coach Matt Martin suggested Iowa assistant LeVar Woods take a good look at LaPorta.
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Martin, whose daughter, Kate, plays for coach Lisa Bluder on the Iowa women’s basketball team, also coached former Hawkeye star AJ Epenesa in Edwardsville. The Iowa staff went back, did their research, and offered a scholarship.
“Since the day he walked in here, he’s been acting like a football player,” Ferentz said. “I hate to use the word natural because it suggests the guys didn’t work on it. He makes decisions and has a knack for doing things right. It’s good to see.
The player few wanted was a Big Ten third-team selection by league coaches last season.
“Hopefully it’s going to be an amazing year for me and my teammates,” LaPorta said. “I think we all have high expectations and high goals for ourselves, and we’re really excited for the season. I am so happy every day that I made this decision to come back.
LaPorta spent each of Iowa’s 15 spring training sessions focusing on one thing, improving his first step after the ball was broken.
“Especially in the running game,” he said. “It just creates the space to bring in your second step to give a good kick with your pad and get the guys off the ball.”
LaPorta’s value will also come in providing leadership to players who will play a significant role in Iowa’s football fortunes going forward.
“I feel like I have to start with the youngest in the room,” he said. “I was mentoring them and coaching them, and letting them try to play on my brain a bit. I hope they don’t make the same mistakes I made in the past because I’m teaching them that.
LaPorta was once one of those young kids, who chose the brains of former Iowa tight ends like Dallas Clark and TJ Hockenson to soak up a first-hand perspective of the game and its position.
LaPorta returned and watched video of the USC game, watching a wide-eyed kid run across the field in San Diego.
“I love going back and watching tapes of good and bad games in the offseason,” he said. “The 2020 Northwestern game here (a 21-20 loss). Oh my God. If I’m in a bad mood, that’s what I look back on. Some of the things I’ve done in this game, I’m just shaking my head.
The gang doesn’t lie, but LaPorta has taken his game to another level since then. And there is always room to grow.
“It’s always a process,” LaPorta said. “The hay is never in the barn, as they say. You never arrived.