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NFL: Two former COC players will line up on opposing sides of today’s NFC Championship game

Posted: January 22, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: January 22, 2012 1:55 a.m.

San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga will add his name to the short list of former College of the Canyons players to appear in NFC Championship games. The eight-year pro has 31 tackles this year in 16 starts, including playoffs.

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It’s the NFC Championship game to everyone else.

For College of the Canyons, it’s something bigger. It’s something historic.

Only two former COC football players have ever appeared in conference championship games, the NFL’s semifinal.

For the first time, two of the school’s products will be on the same field in an NFC Championship when the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants square off today in San Francisco.

49ers defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga and Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul are both scheduled to play in their first NFC Championship game today to determine which team advances to Super Bowl XLVI.

“I’m so grateful, so satisfied,” says Sopoaga, an eight-year and former COC standout from 1999-2000 told The Signal. “I am so happy. I am so amazingly happy with this year because it’s a whole new coaching staff. It’s a whole new system, a whole new defense. I’m so satisfied. I am walking into my ninth year and this is my first time experiencing winning more than eight games and also being in the playoffs. It’s just so amazing.”

Before today, the only other former Cougars to make it this far into the NFL playoffs were running back J.J. Arrington — who played in the 2008 NFC Championship with the Arizona Cardinals — and defensive back Aaron Mitchell, who took part in the 1980 NFC Championship as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

Both games were played against the Philadelphia Eagles, but only Arrington’s team won, making him the only COC product to play in a Super Bowl.

With Sopoaga and Pierre-Paul pitted against each other, another name will be added to that list.

Both players are taking part in the playoffs for the first time in their careers and both are expected to start today.

Pierre-Paul, a second-year pro out of the University of South Florida, came into the season as Osi Umenyiora’s backup, but quickly fought his way into a regular starting role and a breakout sophomore season.

The 2007 COC standout lineman was voted to the Associated Press All-Pro First Team and made the NFC Pro Bowl roster as a defensive end.

In 16 games this season, he recorded 86 tackles, 16.5 sacks, a safety, two forced fumbles and six defended passes in 12 starts according to NFL.com. Pierre-Paul also blocked a potential game-tying field goal attempt in the final seconds against the Cowboys on Dec. 11, securing a victory over the division rival.

It’s been quite an improvement for 23-year-old who didn’t start a single game in 2010.

Now, he figures to be a key component for a New York team trying to earn its way into the sport’s biggest game.

“Both teams fighting for a spot to go to the Super Bowl and it comes down to the last two teams,” Pierre-Paul said Wednesday in radio interview on the Joe & Evan show on New York’s WFAN 660 AM. “Basically all I can say is it is going to be a fight and I am going to be ready. The whole team is going to be ready and we are just going to go out there and give them a battle.”

Pierre-Paul already made COC history when he became the first former Cougar to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft when the Giants selected him 15th overall in 2010.

Although players like Pierre-Paul have attracted a lot of media attention in the days leading up today’s title game, Sopoaga, 30, and the highly-ranked San Francisco defense has done plenty to earn respect around the league this year.

“I’m so thankful to be around these guys,” Sopoaga says of fellow defensive linemen Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. “We are just guys. We aren’t names out there. We present ourselves in a professional way. We’re all men so it’s just going to come down to who wants it more.”

Playing in a game of this caliber isn’t something the former University of Hawaii player pictured himself doing when he was growing up in Samoa playing rugby, volleyball and basketball. Football was a mere side note back then.

Though he played two years in high school, Sopoaga credits the jump-start of his football career to the coaching staff at COC.

“That’s my school. That’s where I went to junior college,” Sopoaga says. “That’s where I set records.”

As a freshman in 1999, Sopoaga set a California Community College record with 31 sacks and, in 2000, he was named state and Western State Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

He went on to continue a successful run-stopping career playing on Hawaii’s defensive line for two years before San Francisco drafted him as the 104th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

After a few seasons as a role player, he earned his spot as a full-time starter beginning in 2008.

Statistically, Sopoaga doesn’t put up gaudy numbers because he typically plays nose tackle, whose role is to occupy blockers in the middle to allow the linebackers to move around and make plays.

In 15 starts during the regular season this year, Sopoaga amassed 31 tackles and recovered a fumble. He also started in his career playoff debut last week when the 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints 36-32.

In his previous seven years, the 49ers have never finished better than 8-8 and have gone through four head coaches before hiring Jim Harbaugh prior to the start of this season.

As San Francisco has grown as a team this year, so has Sopoaga’s role.

He has started on the defensive line nearly every game since 2008, but for the first time in his career, he’s also seeing limited action on the offensive side this season.

In short yardage situations, the 49ers have consistently used him as an extra blocker to make space in the running game.
Fitting, since he played fullback in high school.

On Oct. 30 against the Cleveland Browns, Sopoaga got his hands on the ball when he hauled in an 18-yard reception, the first of his NFL career.

“Oh my gosh, you don’t know how amazing that was. It was like playing rugby,” he says. “I played rugby for 12 years and this is my eighth year (in the NFL), and it was my first catch in football. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just a great feeling catching the ball.”

No matter where they line up, it’s the most high-profile game either player has been a part of.

At least one chapter of the athletic careers of Sopoaga and Pierre-Paul occurred on the campus of COC.

The next chapter could take place in Indianapolis for the Super Bowl — at least for one of them.

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