The verses to a simple yet adoring hymn pump the black and gold blood through the veins of the Iowa City faithful on Kinnick Stadium Saturdays: Come on and cheer until you hear the final gun. The word is “Fight! Fight! Fight! for IOWA,” Until the game is won. A five-star gridiron prospect living in a nearby state has been listening to this familiar rhyme his entire life and is now answering the call to fight and win big for Hawkeye nation.
Edwardsville, IL (27.2 miles from St. Louis) native A.J. Epenesa is solidifying his presence on the University of Iowa’s defensive line this season. In his first game against the University of Wyoming Cowboys, the freshman phenom notched his inaugural collegiate sack against draft-board darling Josh Allen. Allen, according to ESPN’s football draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., was the number two pick in his 2018 preseason prospect list. The former U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection proceeded to prove his first game performance was no fluke, as he assisted on a sack and applied keen and precise pressure to the Iowa State Cyclones’ offense to help the Hawkeyes hoist a Cy-Hawk series trophy in a 44-41 overtime thriller victory. So, why Iowa?
According to Mike Hall of the Big Ten Network, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end was receiving offers from powerhouse programs across the country with the likes of Alabama, Florida, Notre Dame, and Michigan knocking on his door. In the end, the decision was firm and final for Epenesa despite the overwhelming proposals.
“Growing up and being a Hawkeye fan and being able to live my dream is awesome. It’s a dream come true,” said Epenesa to The Edwardsville Intelligencer in February.
A.J.’s father, Eppy Epenesa, was an Iowa Hawkeye football letterman from 1995-1997. His experience was perhaps the pivotal selling point convincing the young football prodigy to attend his alma mater.
“My dad has a lot of friends and family up there. They are good people, especially in Iowa City. Everybody knows everybody, and they will help you out,” A.J. Epenesa told The Edwardsville Intelligencer in February. “One of the biggest reasons I went was because it feels like home and people treat you like you’re home.”
At Edwardsville High School, A.J. was the personification of the ideal all-around athlete. The former Tiger captured four letters in football, basketball, and track in his illustrious prep tenure. In football, he earned first-team all-state and all-conference honors during his final three years at EHS, including a first-team all-conference nod his freshman year. During his senior year playing under the Friday night lights, he was named team captain and tallied up 31 solo tackles, five sacks, and nine blocked kicks. His solo endeavors quickly translated into victories as he guided the Tigers to three straight conference championship crowns. He then went on to earn the defensive MVP Award at the 2017 Polynesian Bowl (he is of Samoan Ancestry) with a stat line consisting of two sacks and two forced fumbles.
To go along with his impressive football accomplishments, Epenesa was equally as dominant on the hardwood. His muscular body frame, raw power, and impressive skill-set reminded local basketball fans of a modern-day Moses Malone. Epenesa scored over an astonishing 1,000 career points in prep basketball, including a senior year campaign in which he averaged a scoring and rebounding double-double.
As a thrower in track, he continued to dazzle spectators outside of the football world. With All-American honors, setting an Illinois state discus record his junior year, and earning four gold medals (two individual, two team honors) in three state track appearances, Epenesa will be showcasing his superb throwing talents for the Hawkeye’s track & field squad this upcoming season.
It’s no surprise Epenesa is already touted as the finest recruit Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz has landed in the past decade or so. His hustle and determination to bring down the opposing quarterback and cerebral approach to dissect various offensive formations have earned him high praise from a well-respected teammate and Big Ten defensive stalwart.
“He’s a freak. He’s athletic. He’s fast. He can do a lot of things,” Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said of Epenesa to HawkCentral.com in August. “It will be fun to see him be able to understand the defense a little bit more and let him run a little more than he can now, because he still has to think a little bit.”
Epenesa’s teammates duly-noted the dedication to his craft and tenacious work ethic throughout summer workouts and fall camp that he was one of two true freshmen voted to the team’s Leadership Group in August. The committee, consisting of 17 players, has the authority to vote for weekly game captains, provide feedback to coach Ferentz, and are involved in vital team decision-making during the season.
The Southwestern Conference product certainly adds depth and hard-hitting tackles to an Iowa defense looking to make their mark on the defensive side in a stacked Big Ten conference. The ultimate test will commence for Epenesa against Penn State in late September to kick off conference play. When he does achieve his crowning moment on national TV or light up the box score, it’ll never go to his head at any point in time.
“A poised guy, very humble. He’s been raised the right way,” said coach Ferentz in February to HawkCentral.com.
St. Louis may have a rocky and tumultuous relationship with the sport of football, but I highly recommend to the remaining few, watch and continue to follow the path of one A.J. Epenesa. A crucial tackle or a memorable quarterback sack courtesy of this natural, born leader will make you believe football is alive and well in the Gateway City.