A.J. Epenesa remains a rock in Iowa’s 2017 football recruiting class.
It was a little over a year ago the five-star defensive end informed Hawkeye coaches that his search had ended. The son of former Iowa lineman Epenesa Epenesa would follow in his father’s footsteps and take his game to Iowa.
A consensus top-30 recruit nationally, he was surrounded by his entire family when he told coach Kirk Ferentz he would become a part of the Hawkeye family.
His parents, Eppy and Stephanie, younger brothers Eric and Iosefato and sister Sam, then attending Purdue on a volleyball scholarship, were all there to share the moment.
Today, Epenesa makes good on his promise, joining four of his high school teammates at Edwardsville High School in Illinois in signing letters of intent to continue their playing careers.
It will be a low-key affair, much like the way the 6-foot-5, 270-pound prospect approaches everything with the exception of the tenacity in how he competes.
A prep all-American in two sports — he rates as one of the nation’s top discus throwers in addition to his dominance on the football field — as well as an all-state player in basketball, Epenesa is one of a kind.
“He’s a pretty special player and equally impressive as a person,’’ said Matt Martin, who has coached Epenesa in football for the past four seasons and also works with him while coaching throws for the Edwardsville track program.
His ability and potential on the field first led recruiters to Epenesa.
His well-grounded personality kept them coming back.
He flirted with the notion of competing for Notre Dame or Oklahoma. He took unofficial visits to those schools, as well as Michigan and Utah.
Alabama, Florida State, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Miami, Missouri, Oregon, UCLA and USC were among the who’s who list of college football programs who offered Epenesa a scholarship.
Those offers came long before he held his own against the nation’s elite in early January at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl or was selected as the defensive most valuable player later in the month at the inaugural Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii.
In both experiences, Epenesa did what Martin has watched him do since he first coached him on the defensive line as a freshman at Edwardsville.
“He’s always been bigger, faster, stronger than most of the players he’s gone up against, but it is the consistency in his technique, how hard he plays every single snap and all of those intangibles that separates him from a lot of players,’’ Martin said. “It’s been a joy to have had a chance to coach him for the past four years.’’
Epenesa has performed.
He has recorded 151 tackles and 13 sacks over the past four seasons for Edwardsville. As a senior, his 57 tackles included 31 solo stops, 13 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He also had 14 quarterback pressures and blocked nine kicks.
In track, he established an Illinois Class 3A state record when he threw the discus 205 feet, 11 inches to win a state championship last spring and in basketball, he’s a leader on a team which is off to an 18-1 start.
In each endeavor it comes back to family, being part of a team.
That ultimately led him to Iowa, where he will become the first five-star recruit to sign with the Hawkeyes since offensive lineman Dan Doering in 2005.
“A lot of coaches I talked with, they talked about family but at Iowa you could feel it. It wasn’t just words,’’ Epenesa said.
“There were a lot of reasons for me to like Iowa — my father’s history there, growing up watching them, rooting for them — but reaching my decision to go there was more than that. The coaches, the other people I met there, it is a family at Iowa and even though I haven’t signed yet I already feel a part of it.’’
Epenesa was among 17 recruits who visited Iowa City last weekend, a collection of talent which at that point included 12 players who are expected to sign binding letters of intent today to become part of the Hawkeye program.
They’ll all be part of the family, something Epenesa has always been about.
Martin saw that as well.
“His parents have done a great job of teaching him that it’s never about me, it’s about we and I think that has been part of his upbringing since an early age,'' Martin said. "I know when A.J. was younger and his father would take him to camps, they would always take a few other kids along.’’
There have been times when it has seemed like the entire neighborhood was along for the experience.
For several years during early-morning hours in the summer, Epenesa has worked out with his father. Over time, his teammates, his younger brother and his friends and others have joined. Sometimes, more than a dozen people take part.
They stretch. They run. They flip tires. They traverse an obstacle course. They talk about family and about faith. Epenesa’s father encourages them all, every drop of sweat along the way.
It is all part of the Samoan culture Epenesa Epenesa brought with him to the United States, first arriving at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, to play football.
He met his wife there and later walked onto the Hawkeye program, working his way into the lineup and lettering as an undersized but effective starter on the defensive line in 1997.
The participants in the early-morning workouts are a part of an extended family, a reflection of a culture centered on respect for others.
Epenesa found those ideals at Iowa, one of the reasons he welcomes the chance to become a signed, sealed and delivered Hawkeye today.
“They’re my family,’’ he said. “I look forward to learning from the coaches, working hard and working with my teammates to do big things. I look forward to going there, getting to work and being a part of something great.’’