116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — When his son committed to the Hawkeyes, Eppy Epenesa was surrounded by family. A.J. wore an Iowa jersey with No. 99 on it. The six family members smiled and posed for a picture with Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
Everyone was in Ferentz's office in the Hansen Performance Center. This was very much coming through the front door. A.J. Epenesa is 6-5, 270 pounds. He's a 1,000-point scorer in basketball. He can throw a discus more than 200 feet. He played in two January football all-star games like he had something to prove.
A.J. Epenesa is a 5-star recruit who everyone wants. And so it's a good thing his dad didn't go to Iowa State.
Epenesa Epenesa ('Eppy') came to Iowa from American Samoa, which is south of Hawaii fairly close to Australia. He went from living where he could hear the Pacific Ocean to Mount Pleasant, where he played defensive line at Iowa Wesleyan (and met his wife Stephanie, who was a volleyball player at Wesleyan).
'There was a lot of stuff that was new to me, a little culture shock, but it was new in a good way,' Epenesa said Tuesday.
Eppy Epenesa went from playing with his brothers and dad in the island cricket championships to playing defensive line at Iowa Wesleyan. Soon, the 250-pounder decided he wanted a bigger challenge and so he looked to transfer.
'When I went to Iowa Wesleyan, I thought this was it, this was college,' he said. 'When I went to visit the University of Iowa, I was in awe. I wanted to go there. I wanted to find a way and show everyone I could play the game. I wanted to compete at the next level.'
That journey started with a trip to Iowa State.
'The coaches we talked to didn't want to dig in and learn more about my situation,' Epenesa said. 'It worked out, it was OK.'
Epenesa's first contacts with Iowa was through a nephew of one of the football administrative assistants (Amy Thomas). The nephew (Judd Thomas) suggested trying out at Iowa.
It's probably hard to imagine now, but it really was kind of a tryout.
Iowa's then-defensive line coach John Austin was Epenesa's first contact with Iowa's staff. There wasn't a scholarship waiting for Epenesa, so Austin asked if he would be interested in walking on.
'I asked him, 'What's a walk-on?'' Epenesa said with a laugh. 'He said you come over and show us you can play the game and maybe we'll work something out.'
This was spring 1994 and it was kind of a tryout.
'I kept thinking, 'Man, this is Division I,' and then I was thinking, 'I can beat this guy, I can beat this guy,'' Epenesa said. 'I can beat these guys, seriously. So, I told him, I'll come in and tryout. I earned my scholarship before the semester was over.'
Epenesa took a redshirt season in 1995, but impressed coaches in practice enough to be named defensive scout team player of the year. He saw spot duty in 1996 and became a second-teamer in 1997. Injuries cleared the way for Epenesa to move up the depth chart.
'He's obviously not as big and as fast and as strong as a lot of guys, but his heart is as big as anybody's on the football field,' then-Iowa coach Hayden Fry said. 'He'll do fine in the ballgame.'
This is a very different route to Kinnick Stadium than his son took.
'It's a whole different world, man,' Epenesa said with a laugh. 'It's just amazing what he's been through and all the work he's put in to get where he's at right now.'
A.J. Epenesa, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch all-metro pick out of Edwardsville, Ill., (his mom's hometown) is at the top of the football world right now. Since recruits have had stars slapped on them, Iowa has reeled in two 5 stars — offensive linemen Blake Larsen and Dan Doering. Rivals recently awarded Epenesa a fifth star, coming off his performance in the U.S. Army All-Star Game.
'The big Iowa commitment is uniquely athletic for his size and possesses rare physical gifts, and he flashed enough at the Army Bowl to convince us of his chances of reaching that potential,' Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst, wrote.
The ESPN.com scouting report: 'If Epenesa can develop more size while retaining his current agility, we see a productive 5-tech end at the college level. High upside prospect with a lot of physical tools.'
Epenesa finished his senior year with 57 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks. In his career, he blocked a school-record eight kicks.
Iowa was A.J.'s first offer. The story is a little different from his father's.
'Iowa was his first offer and it was from Kirk Ferentz,' Eppy Epenesa said. 'They saw him once and that was it. They called me and told him that he's got an offer. That was amazing and very emotional for me.'
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It was emotional for Epenesa on a few levels. First, there's pride and the contrast between father and son's journey to Iowa City.
And then there's Iowa City itself. It holds a special place in Epenesa's heart and he's not able to make the trip from Edwardsville to enjoy everything Iowa. He's the father of four kids (his oldest, daughter Sam, recently graduated from Purdue after playing volleyball there). Sometimes, it's impossible to break away from life and the job to do the fun things.
Plus, the care and feeding of a 6-5, 270-pound teenager?
A.J. Epenesa is aware of the road and the legacy.
Last summer, the Iowa Football Club, a charitable organization of former Iowa players, set up a camp at Clear Creek Amana High School. Some 200 kids came to learn from Hawkeye greats in the club's biggest fundraiser for the numerous children's charities it supports.
The former players wore yellow shirts. Eppy Epenesa was there in a yellow shirt. Of course, A.J. was, too.
'I'm coming in. I'm the new generation of Iowa football coming in,' A.J. Epenesa said. 'It's pretty cool to be around these guys. They lived at Iowa and they live Iowa football.
'The kids that know me look at me like I'm something cool. I think that's cool, but it's like I'm just a kid like they are ... I came to this camp the first year it started.'
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