A.J. Epenesa: From Tigers to Tigerhawk, with Samoa in his heart

Hawkeye star grasps his family's roots in downstate Illinois and the South Pacific

August 30, 2019 | 10:28 am
Chapter 1:

'It takes a village'

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — In 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau said none of this city’s 24,969 citizens were Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders.

As for the bordering city of Glen Carbon? The Census estimated 0.1 percent of its 12,959 residents were of that race/origin.

“That’s me,” said Epenesa “Eppy” Epenesa, a native of American Samoa.

It’s a pretty impactful 0.1 percent.

At last Friday’s Orange and Black Scrimmage at Edwardsville High School for football teams from the Little Tigers tykes all the way up to the high school varsity Tigers, you could see the influence of Samoan culture. That’s not just because the best athlete in the school’s history is A.J. Epenesa, a preseason All-America junior defensive end at Iowa.

During the five-hours-plus event at EHS, 20 miles from St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, dozens of kids and adults alike sought out Eppy for handshakes, hugs and warm words. Some kids in the stands chanted “Eppy!” as he neared them. Many from middle schoolers to the varsity wore shirts he designed for them. They feature Samoan symbols and words. “USO 4 LIFE” and “AIGA from the ‘VILLA” are on the 2019 edition.

“Uso” is Samoan for “brother” or “sister,” depending on the gender. “Aiga” means “family.”

“It’s all about uniting our family and friends and trying to create a community that’s as nice as possible,” A.J. said at the Hawkeyes’ Media Day this month.

That’s what Eppy knew when he was a boy helping his family fish and farm in Pago Pago, the capital of the island of just 76 square miles that is 6,336 miles from Iowa City.

That’s what he brought with him when he left for Iowa in 1992 to play college football at Iowa Wesleyan in Mount Pleasant, when he went to the University of Iowa in 1995 to walk on to the Hawkeye football program, when he lettered as a senior defensive lineman in 1997 before he graduated.

That’s what he and his wife, Stephanie, took to Edwardsville/Glen Carbon when they moved here in 1999. This is where her family lived, where she attended high school. It’s what they instilled in A.J., his older sister Samantha, and his younger brothers Eric and Iose, as well as the wide circles of teammates and friends they have helped form.

 

“It takes a village,” Stephanie said during a break from selling Tigers shirts and caps from a merchandise tent at the scrimmage. She was the EHS Football Booster Board member responsible for much of the funding of the Tigers’ football teams. She is the board’s treasurer.

“It takes a village,” said Edwardsville varsity football head coach Matt Martin in a separate conversation, but he was talking about something else.

“(The Epenesas) literally have a village at their house a few times a week,” said Martin, who coached A.J. on the varsity team for four seasons that all ended in the state playoffs. “It’s not just about their sons and daughter. They want to see all these kids have success.”

“As good a football player as A.J. is,” said his middle-school basketball coach, Paul Johnes, “he’s an even better person. All the stories you read about him are true. It starts with his mom and dad, his background.”

Chapter 2:

'It's all about family'

The Epenesas have a nice-enough house in a nice-enough subdivision. It’s not fancy, but it’s functional. Most importantly, the backyard is big enough to support a lot of humanity at summer workouts and autumn cookouts.

For the last several years, Eppy has conducted summer conditioning drills at his house for all Edwardsville kids who want to participate, primarily middle-schoolers early in their athletic careers. He began holding them when A.J. was in middle school.

“I started doing this because if my kids had to train by themselves, how not fun is that?” Eppy said. “Friends help each other stay fit. We have about 50 kids. By the time they get to the coaches, these guys are ready. They’re running everywhere, they’re flying everywhere.”

 

Eric, a senior linebacker/receiver/long snapper on this year’s Tigers and an excellent EHS volleyball player, has done the workouts with his friends. Iose (pronounced yo-say), a middle school football player who may grow up to be larger than 6-foot-6, 280-pound A.J., did them this summer with his peers.

The kids run in the neighborhood. They go to a nearby park and repeatedly scale a hill. They do agility drills in the front yard. They do situps and push-ups in the garage. In the backyard, they flip heavy tires.

“It’s not necessarily 100 percent about getting in shape for the season,” A.J. said, “though it’s obviously a big part of it because they’re football players. But it’s mostly about uniting that group or groups of those kids into a brotherhood.”

Eppy is a ground operations manager at St. Louis’ Lambert International Airport for Southwest Airlines, his employer of 19 years. He said the company lets him work a night shift in the summer so he can devote time to the kids during the day.

“I tell them if they’re going for the kill for each other in football they’ve got to remember to stay humble, stay fit and stay hungry,” Eppy said.

“It definitely makes a difference,” said Eric, who will decide between playing college football and volleyball later this school year.

It’s about more than developing stamina and upper-body strength. It’s trying to affect the way they think.

“My dad talks to them about respecting your parents, respecting your family, how to act at home,” A.J. said. “He doesn’t charge these families anything (except for one case of bottled water and one case of Gatorade), doesn’t make any money off it. He does it out of the goodness of his heart to help the community and bring my brother and his friends closer and help them enjoy their childhood even more.”

Eppy uses the workouts to work on the boys’ hearts, too, putting a little Samoan in them.

“You’ve got to love and take care of your parents, make your parents happy,” he said he tells them. “That’s pretty huge for me.

“In the Samoan culture, we respect our elders and our parents. I tell these kids to make sure they listen at home. If you can’t listen at home, you can’t listen when you’re outside your home. If you can’t behave at home, there’s no way you can behave when you go outside your home.”

Edwardsville High athletics director Alex Fox said he sees the effects of Eppy’s messages in the school.

“Absolutely,” Fox said. “The kids have embraced the Samoan culture. The kids I see him working with, they’re taking care of their grades, they’re model citizens. There’s a connection. It’s a total package. It’s a great story.”

Stephanie works in finance for The Boeing Company in St. Louis County. She was a scholarship volleyball player at Iowa Wesleyan when she met Eppy there. Samantha was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s All-Metro Player of the Year in volleyball in 2011 and went on to be a three-year starter at Purdue. She now manages a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Samantha was a hard-worker,” Stephanie said. “She played a lot of sports, and she worked hard in school. She was a good role model for the kids to do their best.

“All the teachers knew her and told A.J. ‘Your sister was really good at this and that.’ That helped keep him in check.”

“I remember when A.J. was in sixth grade,” Johnes said. “His mom came to me and said she was taking A.J. off the team for a week. I said ‘You sure you want to do that?’ She said his grade dropped a little bit in one of his classes so she was taking him off the team.

“It never happened again. And I didn’t question his mom again.”

Back to that backyard. The workouts are for the summer. Then there are those fall Friday nights.

“After home games my dad always cooks pork steaks and teriyaki chicken, makes a lot of food we always eat,” A.J. said. “But other people bring side dishes, wings, meatballs, buffalo chicken dip.”

Three grills are in the backyard. Colored lights are strung. Torches are lighted. Tropical music plays. A sliver of downstate Illinois becomes a sliver of Samoa.

“It’s crazy,” Martin said with admiration. “A hundred-and-fifty people in their backyard, holding hands and saying grace.”

 

“It’s not just my family,” Eppy said. “We have an awesome group of parents who cook together and help make it happen. It’s for the kids to eat after games so they don’t have to go anywhere. The games are over at 10 o’clock, they come right over to the house, then they go home to sleep.

“On Friday morning we start cooking. By 4 we put the food in warmers and we’re ready to come here (to the stadium).

“It brings the community together. It’s a team environment.”

“Team” basically means anyone the Epenesas know.

“A lot of my friends come around who aren’t part of the football team,” A.J. said.

“It’s all about family,” Eppy said. “It’s all about God.”

Samoa isn’t just a concept for the Epenesa children. Eric and Iose accompanied Eppy there a year ago for a wedding in which Eppy was the best man.

“All my dad’s siblings live on the West Coast or in Samoa,” A.J. said. He has three cousins from California who have played Division I football. One (Jacob Tuioti-Mariner) is in training camp with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

“I didn’t have much exposure to (Samoa) growing up in Illinois,” he said. “but my dad tried his best to put his culture into our lives so that I can really embrace it and take pride in it, which I do.”

A.J. is tattooed with what he calls “typical Samoan designs — the birds, the tortoise shells, the fish, the leaves. All of these just have significant meaning in everyday life in Samoan culture.” He has been to Samoa twice, as a 6-year-old and a sixth-grader.

 

“I went for a funeral in the village where my dad’s from,” he said. “My dad’s brother was high chief of the village and he passed away. So they had a big ceremony celebrating his life and sending him off into the afterlife.

“I got to experience the everyday life of what my dad did as a child. I had chores to do like most boys my age there. It’s really hard to compare here to there because they don’t have the same opportunities as we do here in the States.

“I have people there waiting for me when I come back, and I’m really looking forward to when I have the chance to go.”

Eppy was recruited to Iowa Wesleyan by Mike Fanoga, a Samoan who was an assistant coach at the school. Before taking his current job as a high school coach in Hawaii, Fanoga coached all over the country and brought many Samoan players to the U.S.

Football is the real deal in Samoa,” Eppy said. “It’s like the Dominican Republic for baseball. It’s pretty serious stuff.”

But then he played in front of crowds at Kinnick Stadium larger than American Samoa’s entire population of about 55,000.

“I was in awe,” he said. “I was ‘Wow, there’s another level other than Iowa Wesleyan?’ I was just this island kid, here to get a better education, play football and go home.”

Chapter 3:

'I was almost in tears ...'

Instead of being known as a walk-on defensive lineman who played primarily in nickel packages, Eppy’s primary identity to Iowa fans today is as the father of a popular Hawkeye star. He said he can’t walk very far in a Kinnick parking lot without fans wanting to take pictures with him. “Which is awesome,” he said.

 

It seems a given that A.J. is NFL-bound after this, his junior season. His parents aren’t interested in the topic right now.

“His dad mostly tells him how much better he can be,” Stephanie said. “I tell him ‘You’re not that guy yet.’ That’s how we keep his feet on the ground. He’s got to do the little things. It takes a whole team.

“When the time comes and if it’s right, then we’ll talk about it. But he’s not that guy yet.”

Eppy said “We block everything out like we did during recruiting. I really don’t care what’s said about him.

“A lot of sports agents are trying to get in, and I’ve told them ‘Just keep praying for my family. But leave our family alone right now so we can enjoy watching our kids do their thing.’”

The Epenesas put Edwardsville in their circle, but the reverse is true, too. Last November, Iowa rolled to a 63-0 win over Illinois in Champaign. The weather was raw. Epenesa’s performance included a forced fumble, a return of that fumble for a touchdown, a quarterback sack and a blocked punt all within a two-minute period of the second quarter.

“I think we had over 200 people from Edwardsville there,” A.J. said. “Obviously, I can’t supply that many tickets, but a lot of people came. They had to drive two hours. People made the effort to come and watch me, and it made me very happy to say the least.

“It wasn’t the prettiest of days, but it was a really good game for our side. I’m glad we were able to show them a good time and really put a beatdown on (Illinois).

“I was almost in tears by how appreciative I was of the people from my hometown coming and supporting. When I really thought about it, it made me so happy and made me really appreciate this is my town.”

There’s a word for that: Aiga.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com