The last months of Iowa commit A.J. Epenesa’s high school football career has included an ALL-USA selection, a final ranking of No. 6 overall by 247Sports and a spot in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
His final game, though, reflects a feeling deep in his heart – the love for his Polynesian heritage.
Epenesa, a 6-5 defensive end from Edwardsville, Ill., is among the nearly 100 high school football stars who will take part in Saturday’s inaugural Polynesian Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii (10 p.m. CT, ESPN3).
“It’s a huge honor to come back to your roots, learn about your culture and learn about your people,” he said. “You realize there is a bigger picture than yourself and to see the land as itself. Being on this island is a big opportunity for a lot of these guys and me especially, growing up in the Midwest. To be able to take in everybody and everything has been huge.”
Epenesa has referred to himself as “a big Samoan kid raised in the Midwest.” His father, Eppy, is from America Samoa and arrived in the Midwest for a football career that included walking on at Iowa as a defensive lineman.
His immediate family – parents, brothers and sister – have made the trip with him for the week and he is expecting members of his father’s family from Hawaii and other family members from Samoa to attend the game.
A.J. is making his first trip to Hawaii in which he’s actually spent time on the island. He has previously passed through on the way to Samoa.
“It will be awesome to see some family that I haven’t seen in a long time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
In the Polynesian Bowl, 75 percent of the players are of Polynesian descent; the remainder are from other ancestries. The teams are named for their honorary captains: Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and Baltimore Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley. The game is being held in conjunction with the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I’m sure some of the (non-Polynesians) thought the activities were silly at first, but then they realized it’s real to us and real to our people with the traditions,” he said. “I think they are trying to take it in and learn the culture and about our people. I’m sure they appreciate the opportunity to learn more. They’re all having fun with it.”
The Polynesian Bowl comes two weeks after Epenesa played in the Army Bowl with many of the nation’s top prospects. The return to the football field has been a break from basketball, where he scored his 1,000th career point in late December.
“I was honestly more excited for this game because of the cultural aspects and my family,” he said. “They are both awesome bowl games and both a lot of fun to be a part of. I would do it again if I could. It’s a huge honor to go to the both of the games and especially this one to learn more about me and my people.”
While in Hawaii, the major national recruiting services came out with their recruiting rankings. Rivals gave Epenesa a fifth star and 247 moved him up. He conceded he has seen the rankings and looked at them throughout the process to a point.
“I would see the rankings go down or go up, but I didn’t see that as much of a difference maker,” he said. “I was still committed to Iowa. I still had my offers. In the end, the rankings don’t matter once you get the offers because those are the things you really needed to work for.”
Epenesa will head to Iowa as one of its highest-ranked recruits recently and also will be following his father as a Hawkeye. He understands the target of him and the potential burden, but he is not shying away. He never has.
“I’ll have more expectations on me to come in and produce as a freshman to help us have success,” he said. “I’m willing to take that on and willing to work hard and try to help the team get better.