GLEN CARBON, Ill. – A.J. Epenesa is constantly surrounded.
Edwardsville (Ill.) High School is hosting a football game on Sept. 16. That makes the 6-foot-5, 275-pound senior a superstar everywhere he goes on this night in southwest Illinois.
Conference rival O’Fallon sends double and triple-teams at the defensive end. Family swarms him with hugs under the bleachers. Back at his suburban St. Louis home, rain packs about 70 people indoors for a weekly postgame party that coincides with Epenesa’s 18th birthday.
It’s an average Friday night for the highest-rated recruit in Iowa football’s history. Attention and admiration comes from all angles.
But the second of Eppy and Stephanie Epenesa’s four children has a personal bubble. It’s been built up through years of love and trust. And it’s not easy to break in.
“I remember Alabama coming into my house and trying to big-show me,” A.J. said from a side bedroom hours after a 19-0 win over O’Fallon on Sept. 16.
“A coach had a fat national title ring on, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a nice ring.’ But I wasn’t looking for that. I wanted a place that said, ‘We’re a family and we’re going to take care of you.’
The Iowa Hawkeyes are on the inside.
“Iowa is the only place I felt that,” he said. “They don’t pull in four- and five-star players all the time and they have to work hard to get what they’ve got. It reminds me of home.”
More than a decade passed between Iowa’s last five-star prospect and Epenesa’sverbal commitment on Jan. 17. He’s the No. 1 defensive end in the country for the class of 2017, ranked as high as No. 6 overall by one major recruiting service.
Before finding a quiet place to talk, he poses with Batman-themed cupcakes and high-fives friends. The Hawkeyes have never snagged a prospect like this. Epenesa is a high school celebrity, a legacy, and one of the most coveted football players in the country.
“He’s got everything you want in a defensive end prospect,” Scout.com Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu said. “Size, athleticism, instincts, an elite work ethic. … I’d really have to split hairs to find many weaknesses in his game.”
As fans and followers prognosticate his bright future, Epenesa is most comfortable at home. Grandma and grandpa still live a couple blocks away. Fun seasons as Edwardsville’s successful basketball and track star await. He can reminisce about being coached by his father — a 1997 letterman at Iowa — while wondering about life outside southwest Illinois.
Family and football are his focuses. They will follow him to Iowa City.
“Before A.J. committed, people would always come up to me and ask where he was going or remind me about Alabama,” Edwardsville classmate and defensive tackle Tate Rujawitz said.
“I never gave it out. I’d just smile and say, ‘Yeah, those are big offers, but I don’t think A.J. is leaning there.’ He had mentioned it to me, so I wasn’t surprised. A.J. has always loved Iowa.”
‘I’ve always known we were different’
The Epenesas are serving trays of teriyaki chicken legs and marinated pork steaks in their crowded kitchen. As Tigers teammates and friends wind through the buffet line, A.J. ‘s nine-year-old brother Iose shuffles through guests with a swim move.
The family has seen this pass-rush technique from giant youngsters before.
“Iose is built just like him, and A.J. was a head taller than all his teammates,” Stephanie said.
“We started every sport at the YMCA, but he begged us to let him play football. We finally gave in and let him play in fourth grade, and I still had to carry his birth certificate in my purse every weekend.”
Stephanie met Eppy as athletes at Iowa Wesleyan. She played volleyball, he came from American Samoa to the U.S. for more family and football. He then transferred to walk-on with head coach Hayden Fry and the Hawkeyes, where the Epenesa legacy began on Iowa’s defensive line.
“My dad taught me the three-point stance in the backyard,” A.J. said. “And the first move I learned was that swim move. Then it was the rip, the chop, the club-and-rip, the spin, and anything else he could teach as early as I could learn it.
“Even before I played football, he wanted to make sure I was ready.”
The athletic success began with their eldest daughter Sam. She set the bar for her brothers as a high school all-American volleyball player, and the 6-footer recently moved to Chicago after a four-year career at Purdue.
The postgame gatherings and now-legendary backyard workouts were Eppy’s plan to keep his kids in shape and out of trouble.
“Neighborhood kids would see Sam and A.J. running, working, getting better, and eventually we’d have them come over and join in,” Eppy said from under an umbrella at the O’Fallon game. “It became a big thing that I still lead over the summers.”
The makeshift boot camps have extended to Iose, 15-year-old freshman Eric (a blossoming wrestler) and their teammates. Sprints, tire flips, bear crawls and obstacle courses are routine for a family gifted with physical talent and raised with coachable personalities.
Regional scouts and coaches at Edwardsville learned about it immediately. A.J. was the school’s first freshman starting for the Class 8A varsity football team in decades.
“We’d heard stories about him before high school,” Edwardsville senior offensive lineman Lucas Davis said. “It was like, ‘Oh, there’s this big kid coming up that’s an amazing athlete and can already dunk a basketball.’
“I honestly never thought we’d become such close friends, but his family is super welcoming and I can come over here any time I want.”
Davis was with A.J., teammate Nathan Kolesa, Eppy and Eppy’s cousin, Rocky, on a visit to Iowa City over Cy-Hawk weekend on Sept. 10. Davis and Kolesa want to keep playing football, but aren’t major college prospects.
They were all together on the Kinnick Stadium turf anyway, wearing Iowa gear, smiling and soaking up the gameday experience like family members. Or, as Eppy says brothers in Samoan: usos.
“I’ve always known we were different,” A.J. said. “You obviously don’t see many Polynesians in the area, but my family has always done things and conducted ourselves differently. We do a pretty good job at keeping ourselves level-headed.”
Eppy gathers every party guest for motivational speech and prayer before digging into the massive buffet. It’s endlessly earnest and positive, the kind of platitudes – “Listen to your mom and dad and coaches!” – that are only taken seriously from a natural leader.
Those traits have rubbed off on the undefeated Tigers, too.
“A.J. is vocal and always supporting everyone,” Kolesa said. “It’s always about keeping your head up, keep working, you can do it. The expectation is a big-time recruit is going to be a leader, and I think he’s done an awesome job with it.”
A wanted man
Pick a powerhouse: Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon or Southern Cal. They and dozens of others have reached out and spent resources recruiting Iowa’s first five-star commitment since 2005 to no avail.
“I really liked the attention from the colleges,” he said. “I dreamt about going to Iowa as a kid. I never thought about Michigan, Mizzou or Florida State growing up, because I was just hoping I’d get the chance to go to Iowa.
“I proved myself to be a pretty good competitor when I went to camps. That made me feel like I could compete with anybody.”
The highest recruiting ranking comes from 247Sports, where Epenesa is No. 6 in the country. He’s also 21st at Scout, 36th at Rivals and 60th at ESPN. The 247Sports composite, which compiles all major recruiting services, lists Epenesa as the No. 22 prospect overall.
“The family connection to Iowa helps them, but he was recruited by everybody, so they had to do a good job of recruiting him,” Trieu said. “They’re known for taking guys that aren’t highly recruited and turning them into, not only productive players, but all-Big Ten and NFL type players.
“These top recruits can see, ‘Hey, if they can develop these guys that weren’t considered that talented coming out of high school, what can they do with me?’”
That composite score ties Epenesa with Kyle Williams, Iowa’s highest-rated recruit ever. Nicknamed “Bonecrusher,” out of Bolingbrook, Ill., Williams was supposed to be the gem of the 2004 class. His story became a cautionary tale: he failed to qualify for Iowa academically, switched allegiance to Purdue and was then arrested and convicted on multiple sexual assault charges in Illinois and Indiana.
Before that – Rivals debuted its famous star system online in 2002 – the Hawkeyes had top 2001 national grabs in Blake Larsen and Matt Roth, ranked 33rd and 36th respectively. Their on-field paths prove how unscientific picking prospects can be.
Roth earned all-American honors as a senior and played seven seasons in the NFL at defensive end. Larsen became a poster child for five-star struggles as injuries derailed his career.
“Expectations people put on me weren’t wanted by me or my family,” Larsen told the Register in 2004. “All the attention was fun at the time, but when you’re in high school, you’re a dumb kid. Eventually you learn it’s people talking, and people trying to sell a magazine. You want to live up to what people say, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Iowa reeled in elite multi-sport athletes as football recruits before the star system, too.
Former assistant coach Frank Verducci was NFL hall-of-famer Andre Tippett’s high school coach before joining Iowa’s staff in multiple roles from 1985-98. Verducci also helped reel in one of 1990’s blue-chippers in Willie Guy, a USA Today High School All-American quarterback out of Memphis, Tenn.
“He’s as gifted an athlete as I’ve ever recruited at Iowa,” Fry told the Register in 1990, “but I don’t want to put any pressure on him.”
It didn’t matter. A wide receiver recruit, Guy toiled through eligibility concerns under Fry and contributed sporadically through 1995.
How can Epenesa avoid similar pitfalls? He plans to stay insulated, just like at home. And he’s already dealt with the pains of being a freshman starter and high-profile teenager.
“I realized at a young age that it wasn’t going to come easy, because my dad preached that my whole life,” he said. “Some people get real content with how good they are. A lot of times that’s why you don’t see them at the next level or hear their name anymore.”
Teammates frequently hear Epenesa’s name off the football field. It’s not always in a flattering manner.
Despite dominating on the gridiron, averaging a double-double in basketball and holding honors as one of the nation’s best discus throwers, trash talk comes in person and on social media.
“It’s just jealousy,” Davis said. “What can you even say to him?”
Epenesa says he will throw the discus for Iowa’s track and field team. He owns the Illinois state meet record with last season’s throw of 205 feet and 11 inches.
Now, Epenesa’s stars can help Iowa’s class of 2017 compete with its 2005 haul. He’s the lone five-star prospect, but Iowa’s group is currently No. 18 nationally and could rise with a few more successful recruitments of four-star prospects.
The loaded 2005 bunch had a trio of five-stars – No. 30 Tony Moeaki, No. 33 Dan Doering, No. 36 Dace Richardson – all from Illinois. With more prospects finding success, Iowa’s pipeline next-door could keep flowing.
“You’re getting an amazingly talented defensive end,” Rivals analyst Josh Helmholdt said when Epenesa committed to Iowa in January. “Physically, he has no limitations.
“He’s athletic, he’s quick, he can bend, he can move. He has everything college coaches look for and down the line, NFL coaches are going to be looking for. Physically, he has all the gifts.”
Expectations for the five-star freshman will be higher than Kinnick Stadiums walls. But Epenesa’s size, athleticism and football IQ could propel him into the Hawkeye depth chart once he gets to Iowa City after graduation.
“I think he has as good a chance as anybody in the country to come in and play,” Trieu said.
“He’s going to be physically ready to compete against college kids on Day 1. He’s going to be mentally prepared because he understands competition, but his dad played and can tell him exactly what it’s like to play on Saturdays at that level and how to prepare during the week.
“When you look at the number of freshmen on the depth chart this year, Iowa is willing to play young guys and with all due respect, none of them came into camp as highly regarded as A.J.”
This fall, he’s following the Hawkeyes while remaining focused on own his team’s playoff ambitions. And the Tigers are off to a great start.
O’Fallon ran its offense through the downpour in the same direction most Edwardsville opponents have for several seasons – away from Epenesa. Coach Matt Martin runs a 3-4 defense, often giving Epenesa a tough matchup out of the “5” technique as he lines up against a guard, tackle and likely a chipping tight end or running back.
An overpowering bull-rush in the first quarter on a nearly 300-pound left tackle earned Epenesa an impressive sack. The rest of his time was spent chasing read option calls around the opposite edge and trying to tee off on runners who cut back. Taking on multiple bodies freed up his friends and line-mates to make plays.
“We’ve always been together,” Rujawitz said. “Me and A.J. have had a connection since we met. Like brothers. It’s rare.”
As Eric and Iose played in the rain, Eppy and Stephanie – under a black-and-gold Hawkeye umbrella – sat dutifully with family near the Edwardsville student section. Cheering for the team while following A.J., they clapped his big hits, a batted pass, and long-snapping duties.
“I let them learn what they want to do and figure it out on their own,” Eppy said with a laugh. “Then, when they need a correction, I’m here to help.”
No corrections were necessary in the moments after shutting out O’Fallon. After a high-five line along the home stands, the family embraced and the strapping senior walked into the locker room. They’re savoring the Fridays they have left with the first of three football-minded boys.
“I still think about him as a kid with the ‘Little Tigers’ because he couldn’t touch the ball, but he’d still score,” Stephanie said. “He’d just break through the line, steal the ball from the quarterback and run it.
“Now, he looks like he could go buy beer if he wanted to, but when you talk to him sometimes, you remember he’s still a kid.”
Epenesa’s senior season will stretch into 2017. The entire family will travel to San Antonio, Texas for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7, then head to Hawaii two weeks later as he puts pads on for the inaugural Polynesian Hall of Fame Bowl.
That almost takes him to National Signing Day, when Hawkeye fans can finally exhale about securing his coveted letter of intent.
Standing in front of his dad’s Iowa memorabilia wall, A.J. contemplates that future, and the party’s commotion can’t shake his focus.
“I’m just big Samoan kid raised in the Midwest trying to do big things,” Epenesa said. “I know college football will be like a job. But to us, football is already a lifestyle. It keeps us going. It’s a family.”