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Sam LaPorta is latest to add to Iowa’s ‘Tight End U’ tradition
Brian Ferentz says LaPorta ‘is as good a football player as I've ever coached’
NASHVILLE — Sam LaPorta remembers the time he met Pro Bowl tight end Dallas Clark.
It was during fall camp of his freshman season in 2019.
“I was like, ‘Holy s---, that’s Dallas Clark!’” LaPorta said. “That’s really cool.”
The tight end from Highland, Ill., had yet to play a down at Kinnick Stadium, yet Clark knew his name.
It was not just Clark. Whether it be T.J. Hockenson, George Kittle or other NFL tight ends who went to Iowa, “they’ve been supportive of me since Day 1.”
Three years after LaPorta’s first interactions with Clark, Hockenson, Kittle and others, his play has been close to a Clark/Hockenson level.
“Sam LaPorta is as good a football player as I've ever coached, probably the best one,” offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz said.
The 6-foot-4 tight end ranks 15th in Iowa football history in receiving yards going into the Music City Bowl with 1,730. With 70-plus yards Saturday, he could move up to 13th.
LaPorta is well above Clark and Hockenson on Iowa’s all-time receiving yards leaderboard although he had the advantage of four years to rise up the ranks.
LaPorta had 53 catches for 601 yards in the 2022 regular season — more than what Iowa’s top two wide receivers had combined — despite missing much of the Minnesota game and all of the Nebraska game with an injury.
Clark, in comparison, had 43 catches for 742 yards in 2002 when catching passes from Heisman runner-up Brad Banks.
LaPorta was one of three finalists this year for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the top tight end in the country, and won the Big Ten’s Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award.
Despite his productive 2022 season, LaPorta said being a Mackey finalist “caught me by surprise” because he does not pay attention to the “hype going across the country.”
“I came back for my senior year, and I had really high expectations for myself and high expectations for the team,” LaPorta said. “Getting to achieve some of those individual goals that I set for myself, it meant a lot.”
His favorite memories, though, are not necessarily on the field.
“My favorite memories are probably just the ones with my teammates at like lunch tables and dinner tables,” LaPorta said. “Just talking about the most random stuff.”
LaPorta has taken a leadership role, serving as one of Iowa’s five permanent 2022 team captains.
“He’s been such a great leader for us — leading by example and by voice,” defensive lineman John Waggoner said. “He does everything the right way.”
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said LaPorta has earned respect from teammates “just by who he is, how he conducts himself on a daily basis.”
“He's just doing things the right way,” Ferentz said. “That's what good players do, leaders do. They do it on a daily basis, not some of the time.”
When LaPorta missed the Nebraska game because of his torn meniscus, he worked to be a “supportive teammate” on the sidelines while also trying to accelerate his recovery process in the locker room.
“I was actually keeping my knee in a compression machine, hoping that I could keep the swelling down for a possible chance to play in the Big Ten championship,” LaPorta said.
LaPorta’s leadership has been on an offense that has faced a lot of outside scrutiny after ranking 130th out of 131 teams in the regular season in total offense.
“When the bullets are flying and there’s outside noise, we try to look past that and look around it,” LaPorta said. “We lean on each other even more than we did before adversity hits.”
LaPorta is among the seniors who chose to still play in the Music City Bowl despite already having a suitable resume for the NFL Draft.
“He could easily not play in this bowl game because he’s got plenty of tape, but he’s doing it because he loves being around us and loves this program,” Waggoner said.
He not only has been practicing at tight end ahead of the Music City Bowl, but also quarterback in case something happens to Joe Labas and Carson May.
“How do I see him as an emergency quarterback?” Brian Ferentz said. “He'll probably make some plays because that's generally what he does when he has the ball in his hands.”
LaPorta has his share of fun away from the field, too.
“He’s goofy,” offensive lineman Mason Richman said. “He’s wild. He’s funny.”
When Iowa’s 2020 trip to the Music City Bowl was canceled because of COVID-19 issues inside the Missouri program, LaPorta went to Nashville anyway.
“Well, my buddies said that they had the Airbnb and they couldn’t get it refunded, so they were like, ‘Hey, just come down to Nashville anyway,’” LaPorta said. “I was like, ‘All right, yeah.’”
As for LaPorta’s NFL buddies, they “reach out to me every once in a while like, ‘Hey, if you need anything, don’t be afraid to ask.’”
Other times they will text each other after “hey, good game” and “small things like that.”
“Even those small things have a big impact on somebody,” LaPorta said, “because I see them at the next level, and I think that’s really cool, and I look up to them.”
Looking beyond the Music City Bowl, it may be LaPorta’s turn to be the NFL guy texting a young Iowa tight end soon.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a blast watching him on Sundays,” Hockenson told The Gazette last month.