More than a decade passed between Iowa’s last five-star prospect and A.J. Epenesa so you can imagine how excited the Hawkeyes fans are for him to arrive in Iowa City.
But the folks in Edwardsville, Ill., are pretty happy, too, and might be able to say they knew him when.
Epenesa was presented with his honorary jersey for the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Wednesday in a packed auditorium as the Selection Tour presented by American Family Insurance came to his school.
But it wasn’t just family, friends and teammates. It was the parents of many teammates also.
“I feel that if all the teams see each other as an actual family, why would you want to let your brother down?” Epenesa said, according to Advantage News. “Especially on the field, but also making bad decisions off the field. I feel like putting it in that perspective, your family really puts you in position to want to do better and not disappoint.”
He’s the No. 1 defensive end in the country for the class of 2017, ranked No. 6 overall by 247Sports. Some argue he might be worthy of being the No. 1 overall player in the class. His performance at the Army Bowl and in the practice beforehand could lead to a move up the rankings.
Even before he decided to follow his father — a former Hawkeyes defensive lineman under Hayden Fry — Iowa, Epenesa was big news in his hometown. He was the school’s first freshman starting for the Class 8A varsity football team in decades. And well, at 6-5 and 285, he’s pretty much big wherever he goes.
But humble too.
“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.”
There’s that word again. Epenesa’s family is planning to be in San Antonio for the Jan. 7 Army Bowl.
He is the second player in school history to make the Army Bowl. Rodney Coe, a 2011 Edwardsville graduate who is now on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad, was selected for the game.
“What you see is what you get,” coach Matt Martin said of Epenesa. “He’s genuine, he’s a special athlete and he’s a special person.”