IOWA CITY — The aqua-blue tattoo on A.J. Epenesa’s shoulder says it all.
Shows it all, actually. Tattoos don’t talk.
It’s a Samoan tattoo. It’s an unwritten passage into manhood.
“My dad didn’t push me to get it, but he was like, ‘If you want it, we can go get it,’” said Epenesa, a sophomore defensive end for the Hawkeyes. “He wasn’t against it, by any means.”
The tattoo is a tribute to American Samoa, where Epenesa’s dad, Epenesa “Eppy” Epenesa, grew up.
There’s a bird. There’s fish. There’s turtle shells and basket weaving. There’s all of that and the name “Epenesa” emblazoned across A.J.’s entire shoulder.
He’s 6-5, 277 pounds. That’s a canvas a lot of tattoo artists would dream of.
“It’s symbols of what the culture means and the hard-work mentality,” Epenesa said. “Everything good comes from working hard. You can’t achieve anything by sitting down and doing nothing. You get up and you do something and that improves your life.”
Last month, Epenesa was named to the Polynesian college football player of the year award watch list. This award is presented annually to the most outstanding Polynesian college football player who “showcases great ability and integrity.”
Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota won the inaugural award in 2014. Washington State defensive end Hercules Mata’afa was the recipient last season.
Epenesa has enjoyed bringing his culture to Iowa City and the Hawkeyes.
His dad went through that exact same thing when he arrived in Iowa. Eppy 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).
Eppy wanted the big challenge, so he walked on with the Hawkeyes and lettered in 1997.
A.J. is happy to be a cultural tour guide.
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“I think people in Iowa probably don’t know much about Polynesians, because Iowa is obviously in the middle of the country and it’s a little different,” he said. “My dad came here with a bunch of friends and teammates from the island. They came here for college and they kind of spread their culture.”
When he served as director of strength and conditioning for the University of Utah in 1998 (of course, he’s spent the last 20 years at Iowa as Kirk Ferentz’s strength and conditioning coach), Chris Doyle worked with Polynesian athletes. The culture left an impression.
“There’s something to be said about the loyalty to family in that culture,” Doyle said. “A.J. brings that with him. That’s been fun to see. He was recruited by everyone in the country and I think that love and loyalty to Iowa football and his dad’s gratitude to have the opportunity to play at Iowa and what it had done for him certainly lent itself to us landing A.J.”
How does that bind with the other D-line fellas? (Yes, they’ve all watched “Moana,” the animated Disney movie about the strong-willed daughter of a chief of a Polynesian village.)
“He’s really proud of it and we do have fun asking him questions,” senior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “You can see it. He’s family oriented. There’s a lot of togetherness. There’s a lot of moving forward collectively with a unified front.”
Last summer, former Iowa D-lineman Nathan Bazata got married in Nebraska (he’s from Howells, Neb.). That meant road trip for the whole D-line group. Not everyone could make it. Epenesa did.
“He came in and immediately bonded with Matt Nelson, Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, they’re his family away from his family,” defensive ends coach Kelvin Bell said. “They drove out to Nebraska last summer for Nate Bazata’s wedding. Not every defensive lineman was there and he went. I think those guys give him the family that he’s looking for and I think that’s why he’s such a good fit here.”
The Hawkeyes are part of the tapestry of the Epenesas. Yes, Eppy has a Tigerhawk tattoo. Yes, A.J. had offers from just about every college football program in the country.
A.J. said he did consider other schools. He did take visits. It wasn’t a slam dunk that he would be a Hawkeye.
But it really kind of was. If A.J. Epenesa were 5-10 and 135 pounds, he’d still probably be going to the UI.
The little bit you’ve read here about Polynesian culture and togetherness and family, that’s where A.J. Epenesa carries the Hawkeyes.
From the time he had a Tim Dwight No. 6 Hawkeye jersey to now, with him standing there wearing his 94 with “Epenesa” on the name plate, Epenesa had the Hawkeyes in his heart.
“I came back home where I thought it was home,” Epenesa said. “I had a good feeling with this place. I felt like I fit really well. It was great getting to know the guys and hang out with them.
“I thought this was the best place for me. I felt like it’d help me grow and I love being here.”
A.J. Epenesa has eyes that see Hawkeyes. You know what that means. You’re on vacation in Paris ... You’re on a tour boat near New Zealand ... You’re driving through northern Wisconsin and see a Hawkeye mailbox.
That’s probably the telltale sign of the truest Hawkeye. You guys will never pass on a loud and hearty “Go Hawks.”
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Epenesa grew up in Edwardsville, Ill. It’s not not Hawkeye country, but it’s not Iowa City. (Epenesa is quick to point out that Kate Martin, a guard on the Iowa women’s basketball team, is from Edwardsville and also grew up Hawkeye).
“Hawkeyes are spread out everywhere, I think that’s pretty interesting,” he said. “It’s kind of weird how sometimes you just kind of run into Hawkeye fans. ... Hawkeye fans and Hawkeye people are sprinkled throughout the whole country.
“It doesn’t matter what coast you go to or wherever you go, I think they’re everywhere and I think it’s pretty awesome how loyal they are to their school.”
Huddle Up: Iowa Defensive Line
TACKLES — After 2015, the Iowa staff made it a point to find and rotate as many as eight defensive linemen. In the last two years, that’s become the standard. It saves legs for November. Does it push some underdeveloped players into playing time? Probably, but D-line coach Reese Morgan and D-ends coach Kelvin Bell managed that well in 2017. The bodies are going to be bigger and the players are going to be improved in 2018.
Cedrick Lattimore — The 6-3, 295-pound Detroit, Mich., native is suspended for game 1 (violation of team rules). His body has noticeably changed. The young freshman weight has turned into muscle. Lattimore should resume his role as a steady performer and will have a chance to grow his game.
Chauncey Golston — The 6-5, 265-pounder is very defensive end-looking. He will rotate in at tackle and he could end up a starter in the opener. If he can lockout his telephone pole arms, he’ll be a menace. On the inside, Golston might have the quickness to make stunts really work on third down.
Matt Nelson — Nelson moved from end to tackle last season. The 6-8, 295-pounder missed spring with a shoulder injury. He’s a mature body who’s fought a lot in the Big Ten. Any rustiness from missing spring should be gone by now.
Brady Reiff — At 6-3, 272, he is undersized, but Reiff has quick feet and a wrestling background that helps him with leverage. Was very effective at times in rotation last season.
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Sam Brincks — In the spring, Brincks also started rotating inside from end to tackle. Last season, he was a full-time end and contributed. At 6-5, 275 pounds, Brincks has the lead to make this work. We still don’t know how much rotation will go on inside. You could see Brincks and Golston just about anywhere if needed.
Garret Jansen — The 6-2, 280-pound junior played a lot in rotation last season. With Brincks and Golston possibly moving inside at certain times, can Jansen keep his spot?
Tyler Linderbaum — The 6-2, 270-pound true freshman threw some bodies around on Kids Day. The big question is do the Hawkeyes need him to burn his redshirt? Probably not, but Linderbaum can change their minds.
ENDS — There’s a more-than-solid threesome in Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse and A.J. Epenesa. Brincks and Golston could rotate in. Looking at the roster, yeah, they’ll probably rotate in. The fourth DE is open.
Anthony Nelson — At 6-7, 271, Nelson has the quintessential defensive end body. He knows how to use it, too. He led the Hawkeyes with 7.5 sacks last season. He has 13.5 in the last two years. Great feet. Tough to block.
Parker Hesse — Quicker, stronger and more athletic than anyone give him credit for. Consummate leader. Expect him to be more effective on third downs as a DT this year. He spent a lot of the offseason studying that topic.
A.J. Epenesa — Epenesa’s disruption numbers as a true freshman last season were outstanding (4.5 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss, at least double-digits in hits and pressures). What exactly does he need to work on? “The thing that comes easy to him is playing on the edge and rushing the passer,” Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle said. “He needs to be stronger so he can be a more physical defensive lineman at the point of attack. He needs to get bigger and stronger to play the point well.”
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