Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Each week, Land of 10 will introduce the Iowa fan base to one of the new Hawkeyes. Up this week is 5-star DE A.J. Epenesa.
EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Tucked amid the St. Louis metro area on the east side of the Mississippi River rests Edwardsville, a community bursting with new developments and high-profile athletic programs.
About 2,500 students attend Edwardsville High School, with two standing out for their athletic skills. Basketball point guard Mark Smith signed with Illinois after picking up interest from some of college basketball’s top programs. The other is defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who shut down his recruiting a year before signing day.
Epenesa, a 5-star defensive end, picked Iowa, a move that surprised many observers. Big-time players with a resumé boasting offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan, USC, Florida State and on and on don’t pick Iowa, right?
In this case, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound Epenesa went with his gut and his heart. His father, Epenesa “Eppy” Epenesa, played football at Iowa in the mid-1990s. A.J. Epenesa grew up an Iowa fan but removed all emotion from the decision-making process.
“Every school had nice things,” Epenesa said. “Iowa just got a new football facility that just got finished. Obviously, it’s all nice and every program that you go to at this level of football will be nice. Nowhere felt as home as it did at Iowa.”
As he approaches his freshman year at Iowa, Epenesa is only the second 5-star recruit to step on campus for coach Kirk Ferentz. Iowa coaches rarely mention freshmen as possible contributors and almost never along the line of scrimmage. Yet defensive coordinator Phil Parker said Epenesa could play 15-to-20 snaps a game next season.
But if fans, media and even the coaches view Epenesa as a big deal, the defensive end does not share in their exuberance. Sure, he’s confident, but he’s grounded. He wants to be a good teammate as much as anything.
“What you see is what you get,” Edwardsville football coach Matt Martin said. “He is very mature. He’s taking this all in stride, with grace. It really comes from home.”
Any version of Epenesa’s story without his family is incomplete. They form the foundation of his life and any success he derives from it. In fact, if anyone carries a higher profile in Edwardsville than A.J. Epenesa or Mark Smith, it’s Eppy Epenesa. He’s the most popular man in town.
At the edge of Edwardsville High School’s large parking lot, Eppy Epenesa drives up in his Chevy Suburban and greets a visitor like he’d known him for a generation. With a foot-long Subway sandwich packed for his 10-year-old son, Iose, Eppy Epenesa arrives at Woodland Elementary School just in time for lunch.
Iose Epenesa sits with four of his friends at a table and chows down on a chicken sandwich, tater tots and chocolate milk. The nearby St. Louis Cardinals and rival Chicago Cubs square off in the final day of their season-opening series, which leads to arguments among the boys. Iose, who wears a red Matt Carpenter jersey and size 11 shoes, is unabashed in his preference for the Cardinals.
Eppy Epenesa walks into the school and immediately meets smiles from teachers and high-fives from Iose’s friends. One jumps up and says, “What’s up, Epenesa?” Then Eppy sits down next to Iose and they talk about school, food and their UNO card-game battles.
A few minutes later Iose heads for the playground to toss a football. Eppy is right there with him, watching. Lunch monitor Hope Dietz greets him on the playground. The discussion shifts to the Epenesa family, which includes Eppy’s four children — Samantha (23), A.J. (18), Eric (15) and Iose — and his wife, Stephanie.
“Best kid ever. Well-mannered,” Dietz said of A.J., who played on the same elementary school asphalt a few years ago. “They have very good kids.”
Recess ends and Iose heads to his classroom. The day is still young for Eppy, who works for Southwest Airlines. He engages in a few goodbyes from the Woodland staff and heads toward his Surburban.
Epenesa lands in Iowa
Eppy Epenesa grew up in American Samoa as the youngest of seven children. Football players were plentiful on the tiny South Pacific Island chain, and Iowa Wesleyan College assistant coach Mike Fanoga sought to brings Samoans to the NAIA football program in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Epenesa, 43, initially stayed behind. But his friend Doug Elisaia (now the director of football sports performance at Utah) showed Fanoga film of Epenesa’s defensive line play, which led to his recruitment.
It was a culture shock.
“It was different from where I’m from, coming from the beach and the ocean to farms everywhere,” Epenesa said. “Corn farms everywhere. It’s quite a different experience.”
The tiny football program had become famous two years before Epenesa’s arrival. The staff included head coach Hal Mumme (later of Kentucky fame) and offensive coordinator Mike Leach (currently Washington State’s head coach) along with wide receiver Dana Holgorsen, now the West Virginia head coach. In three seasons under Mumme, the Panthers never finished lower than second in NAIA passing.
Mumme, Leach and Holgorsen were gone by the time Epenesa arrived. About 15 Polynesian athletes left the islands to play football in southern Iowa, and within weeks the inclement weather became an issue for the players, who were used to 80-degree temperatures every day.
“When it started snowing we were all outside playing forever,” Epenesa said. “Over four hours we’re still playing. Then after that, some of us got sick pretty bad. We didn’t do it anymore.”
By his second year, Epenesa earned NAIA honorable mention All-America honors. He was unaware of high-level college football until Iowa Wesleyan assistant Jim Cox filled him in. Cox took Epenesa on a visit to Iowa State, which he said was “way better than what I had at Iowa Wesleyan.”
Then an Iowa Wesleyan baseball player suggested Epenesa look at Iowa, located about 50 miles north of Mount Pleasant. The player’s aunt, Amy Thomas, works as a football secretary. She connected Epenesa with the football staff, and he was invited to a practice.
“I never knew anything like that was going on,” Epenesa said. “I thought it was the same level as Iowa Wesleyan. The facility was amazing. The people were amazing. Coach (Hayden) Fry, he’s like a superman actually.”
Iowa didn’t have any scholarships remaining, so Epenesa left Iowa Wesleyan and walked on as a defensive tackle. It’s what he called “the best decision that I ever made.”
His roommate was All-America kick returner Tim Dwight. Epenesa carried nothing more than a bag when he walked into his new home.
“I’m like curious who this guy is walking in here,” Epenesa said. “Here he comes, this little white boy walking in there. ‘What’s up, dog?’ and then he started giving me five and introducing himself. From there we started hooking up and we fit right into each other. Very energetic human being. He was what I was looking for, too. I was nuts, crazy.”
Epenesa redshirted in 1995 but was the Hawkeyes’ defensive scout team player of the year. He played sparingly as a backup in 1996 but thrived as a rotational lineman in 1997. Epenesa was second on the team with 5 sacks and had 8 tackles for loss.
The summer before his senior season, he got married. Eppy and his wife, Stephanie, already had a daughter, Samantha. After the football season, the family moved to Kansas City as Epenesa trained for the NFL. He suffered a back injury, then pulled a hamstring. A tryout with the Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t go as planned. He signed with the CFL’s British Columbia Lions but he never made it there. So he opted to end his football career to join his growing family, which now consisted of a second child, A.J.
“That was the last of my football chances,” Epenesa said. “I decided to come home and raise two kids at the time.”
While it was the end for Eppy’s football career, his family’s sporting life was just beginning.
A family commitment
The morning weather of Jan. 17, 2016, was chilly throughout the Midwest, yet warm inside Iowa’s still-new $55 million football practice facility. The Hawkeyes were two weeks removed from a Rose Bowl trip and coming off a 12-win season. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz sat in his office during the late recruiting push.
After taking visits to five schools and cutting his choices to Iowa, Oklahoma and Notre Dame, A.J. Epenesa was about to make a decision. Sure, he liked Oklahoma and Notre Dame, but he said “my heart was with Iowa.” He had a full calendar year before he had to sign a letter of intent, yet everything pointed to Iowa City.
The tightknit family ruled out a phone call to Ferentz. Samantha Epenesa had just finished her senior volleyball season at Purdue but wanted to be involved. She drove to Iowa City from West Lafayette, Ind., and met the rest of her family. They all wore Hawkeyes gear — even Samantha — and they surprised Ferentz at the football facility.
“Apparently no one told him we were coming,” A.J. said. “He was like, ‘Oh, you guys are here? Why are you guys here?'”
“Kirk didn’t know nothing,” Eppy said. “We just walked in there. Kirk probably thinks it’s another visit. But he didn’t know it was coming. We were excited.”
A.J. previously arranged for one of the coaches to place a 99 jersey in the room. Eppy then made a statement to Ferentz.
“We came here for a reason and I got my whole family here and A.J.’s got something to tell you,” Eppy said.
A.J. then took the floor.
“I really enjoyed this recruiting process,” A.J. said, “but I really am set on making my decision now, and I want to tell you I want to commit to playing for the Iowa Hawkeyes. I want to play for you, and I’m looking forward to it.”
“If you could have seen that guy’s face, he was super shocked when A.J. told him,” Eppy said.
“I put a big smile on his face and everyone was smiling,” A.J. said. “My mom and dad were crying a little bit. It was a big moment for me. To have my whole family there, including my sister who played for the Boilermakers, it’s a big moment.”
The moment touched Ferentz. Here was a 5-star junior defensive end a year away from his signing day making his commitment. It wasn’t on paper; it was from his heart.
“For the family to gather like that, especially for the daughter to come from that distance, this is like something from the ’60s,” Ferentz said. “This doesn’t happen anymore. People don’t do this. That was old-fashioned. But that’s how they are. The parents have raised their kids with really good values. It’s a tremendous family. You go into that house there’s a lot of love in that house.”
In Edwardsville, there’s no family like the Epenesas. Shoot, there might not be a family like the Epenesas in America. When it comes to the schools, they are advocates. Same for children of all ages, races and economic backgrounds. Every person who meets Eppy Epenesa greets him warmly. He’s like George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life, without the need to see life without him.
Eppy Epenesa remembers the names of everyone he’s met. That’s from the family for which he worked in Mount Pleasant 23 years ago to the 100-plus youngsters he trains every summer. That’s from every teacher’s aide at Woodlawn Elementary School to every teammate at Iowa. From people in restaurants to his numerous extended family, he is the soul of every community he touches.
Huddle Bar and Grill created the Samoan Knuckle Burger just for A.J. Epenesa and, by extension, Eppy. Owner Tom Yenne was glad to do so.
“I just wanted to make something for (A.J.) because when he and his family come here, especially him and his dad, they come hungry,” Yenne said.
Eppy Epenesa hosts workouts and a running club for children ranging in age from his youngest, Iose, to seniors with A.J. They have 1-mile and 2-mile runs up different hills. In his backyard several tires of varying sizes are set about 50 feet from his house, and the youngsters flip those tires. They do ropes, situps, pushups and an obstacle course. Spirituality also is part of the workout, with everyone holding hands and saying a prayer in a half-circle in Epenesa’s backyard.
“Young kids don’t need to lift weights; they need to run,” Eppy said. “I’m trying to make sure we prepare their body, their mind and their heart.”
As many as 40 kids attend the workouts, and Eppy wants to build their confidence as much as their endurance.
“That is my payment,” Eppy said. “To see my kid smile and to see your kid smile.”
After games on Friday night, the Epenesa residence hosts a Friday Night Lights event. Dozens of people congregate in their backyard for food and celebration. To Martin, the Edwardsville football coach, it’s awesome.
“Every home game they invite everybody over to their house,” Martin said. “They cook. I’m talking everybody. It’s not uncommon to see 100 people in their backyard. It’s crazy. It’s a blessing, it’s a gift that they give to everybody else. It’s pretty neat.
“It’s not just about the Epenesas; it’s about the community. It’s about whatever sport their kid is in. The football team, the basketball team, the track team. They give back, and it’s rare.”
Eppy looks at it as a way to repay those who have helped him adjust far away from home. People have taken him in and helped him feel welcome, like Kevin and Paula Hoenig in Mount Pleasant and trainer John Streif at Iowa.
“If you take care of the people, the people will take care of you,” Eppy said. “We’re blessed to live in this community. Edwardsville is amazing to my family. This is where my wife is from. This is where my kids are from. It doesn’t matter where they go. We’re going to represent this town.”
A 3-sport superstar
A.J. Epenesa exudes both confidence and humility, a rare blend for world-class athletes. He was a three-sport star at Edwardsville High School. He first dunked a basketball in seventh grade and last year averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds a game. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dubbed him “the most dominant post player in the Southwestern Conference.” That’s quite a feat considering rival East St. Louis star center Jeremiah Tilmon is a 5-star recruit.
Nobody in Illinois can touch Epenesa in the discus. Last year he broke the Illinois state meet record with a launch of 205 feet, 11 inches. Earlier last season his toss of 206-5 was the second-best nationally in 2016. Although the high school disc is slightly lighter, his personal-best throw would have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Football is his priority at Iowa, but he plans to compete in the discus.
“People are telling me I should because it’s just a gift that I have where I’m able to do something naturally,” A.J. said. “Because my technique, honestly, isn’t that good. I can just continue to get better, and I could throw even further.”
“He has so much potential if he could put time into it,” said Martin, who coaches Edwardsville’s throwers. “Going to two sports will be easy for him. He just really hasn’t had a break.”
But football is where Epenesa excels. He started as a freshman at a school that rarely plays underclassmen. He earned various All-America honors his final three seasons and participated in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January.
Perhaps his greatest honor was an invitation to the Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii. Epenesa and other top players of Polynesian descent participated in cultural activities for nearly a week before concluding with a game. Epenesa was named the defensive MVP after picking up 2 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
“It was an awesome experience,” Epenesa said. “I think my dad enjoyed it maybe the most because he got to go back a little bit to where he was from. To play in a football game where I played well, it was a blessing to go out there and see our family that my dad hasn’t seen in years. It was pretty awesome. There’s no experience that can match that.”
Epenesa’s extended family in Hawaii included his great aunt and uncle plus cousins. All of them made Iowa Hawkeyes shirts for the family and wore them to the game.
“I’m talking about a lot of family members,” Eppy Epenesa said.
Epenesa’s Polynesian Bowl performance earned him an official congratulations from the Illinois State House of Representatives.
Coming to Iowa
A.J. Epenesa will arrive in Iowa for summer workouts on June 10. He’ll spend part of the summer taking classes, working out in the weight room and enhancing his conditioning.
At Iowa, few incoming freshmen contend for playing time along the line of scrimmage. Epenesa is an exception. The coaches see someone already with a Big Ten-caliber body and a work ethic to match. Although it’s a position of strength for the Hawkeyes, Epenesa should earn his way onto the field immediately.
“He’s one of the top defensive ends in the country,” said Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator. “One thing about it is you come in here and whatever the best fit for him when he gets here, we’ll have to determine that.”
Epenesa’s size, speed, strength and explosiveness are rare. While he’s reluctant to talk about his qualities, he’s confident enough to discuss why he’s such a good defender.
“I think probably the way I pursue the ball,” Epenesa said. “If they have an edge on the outside or right down the field, I’ll try my best to make the tackle, no matter how far the ball carrier is away or if he has a better angle. The pursuit of the ball, the relentlessness to try to get there and make the play.”
“He’s a quick learner,” Martin said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around somebody that has such body awareness. He just feels it.”
In a fishbowl environment like Iowa, the pressure facing a high-level athlete can be daunting. That’s where Epenesa’s humility comes in. He plans to work hard and fit in. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz called Epenesa’s humility “impressive” and said his personality will fit in with his teammates.
“The cat’s been out of the bag for a long time. Everybody asks about A.J.,” Ferentz said. “The big thing we’ll do when he gets here is just encourage him to be himself, which he’s done a pretty job of that.
“I think he’s got some skills and talents that maybe are a little bit above a guy coming out of high school. We’ll just see how that goes.”
Epenesa’s reserved nature belies the intensity with which he competes. He can’t wait to step on campus and form bonds with his teammates. And, of course, play college football.
“I’m excited for the Swarm,” Epenesa said. “To run out to Back in Black and get that feeling of adrenaline rush that everyone’s been talking about, I think that will be something to look forward to. To be out on the field, I’ll be like a little kid having that feeling. I’m pretty excited for everything but that moment in particular is something that I can’t wait for.”
Loyalty Over Everything #Swarm17
— AJ Epenesa (@ajepenesa24) November 2, 2016
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.