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Wednesday, August 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A giant leap to big future for Beach's Emeka Iweka

Special to The Seattle Times

The challenge was only half-serious, but Emeka Iweka didn't take it that way.

Trent Pollard, who coaches the offensive and defensive lines for Rainier Beach High School, joked with Iweka as a freshman about turning out. Now the 6-foot-6, 320-pound senior has a serious football future.

"I think coach Trent Pollard asked me if I was scared to come out here," said Iweka, recalling the day he was watching football practice as a freshman. "So I came out the next year as a sophomore."

Known then as a basketball player, Iweka took Pollard's from-the-hip challenge seriously. In just his third year of organized football, the defensive end/offensive tackle has verbally accepted a football scholarship from Washington.

Pollard, a 1990 graduate of Rainier Beach who was an NFL offensive lineman for four seasons, sees pro football ahead for Iweka.

"If he stays focused on the books in college, he'll have a great future," Pollard said. "I think he'll be getting a call on the first day of the NFL draft.

"He likes to think of himself as a defensive end, but I think he'll make a good left tackle in the NFL. He's got all the tools."

For a while, Iweka was thinking NBA instead of NFL.

He verbally committed to play basketball at Oregon State as a 6-4, 250-pound freshman power forward, but withdrew that decision as a junior. He has been a four-year starter in basketball, helping the Vikings to second, fourth and sixth at the Class 3A state tournament.

Now it's a jump ball over which sport is his favorite.

"I'm starting to like football as much as basketball," he said. "I like football, because you can hit somebody without getting in trouble."

Now, football has his full attention despite nursing a sore Achilles tendon on his right leg in practices.

"When we needed something, we ran the ball to that side the majority of the time," said football coach Mark Haley, who led Beach to a 10-2 season, its sixth consecutive Metro League Sound Division crown and the state semifinals.

In just his second season, Iweka was in on 45 tackles, including 30 solos, made five sacks and recovered two fumbles as a junior. He also lined up at fullback to score a 1-yard touchdown.

Iweka hasn't given up hopes of playing both sports at UW, following in the footsteps of Beach graduate Nate Robinson. Iweka said he has discussed that possibility with Washington football coach Tyrone Willingham.

"He told me that if I have the grades, I could play both," Iweka said. "I think I'll try both sports my freshman year, and if it doesn't work, I'll stick to football."

Iweka averaged 12 points and 12 rebounds in basketball as a junior. His eye-catching footwork, speed and soft hands for a big man caught the attention of Willingham's staff.

"They saw me play basketball at U-Dub against O'Dea and they liked the way I set screens and moved," Iweka said. "They thought I was real agile for a big guy. They also saw me in the football playoffs against Lakes when I caught a running back from behind. I guess they thought I had something special."

Rainier Beach boys basketball coach Mike Bethea concedes that football might be Iweka's future.

"The kid has so much potential and untapped talent in football," Bethea said. "I think he came out here to the football field and discovered that his future would be much brighter in football than on the basketball court."

Iweka, whose Vikings will play Alta, Utah, on Sept. 9 at Husky Stadium, understands that his bulk lends itself more to football.

"I've been big my whole life," he said. "I've always heard, 'You're too big to do anything.' I just laugh at that. But I kind of knew I wasn't going to be playing basketball the rest of my life."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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