Stead Family Children’s Hospital opened in February. It overlooks Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa plays its home games. Inside the hospital, young patients are being treated for cancer, heart conditions, pulmonary diseases, burns and injuries from child abuse and neglect, to name a few.
Hawkeyes players and fans lift their eyes to the hospital and wave to the kids, watching from the windows of the upper floors, at the end of every first quarter. Epenesa said it’s one of his favorite moments of game day.
“I think it’s a fantastic (tradition). It makes those kids’ days,” Epenesa said Friday during halftime of Edwardsville’s game at Belleville West. “You don’t want to feel sorry for them, but you feel a certain feeling inside to know that those kids are going through something as tough as that. The least we can do for them is give them a great view of the Iowa football game, show them that they’re noticed and appreciated by everybody and that they’re not forgotten.
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“I know it really impacts their lives and it makes me happy to see that kids like that are getting recognition for the tough fight they’re going through.”
Those who know Epenesa aren’t surprised to hear how much he cares. As a star in football, basketball and track at Edwardsville, the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder had time for everyone, whether it be to sign autographs, pose for pictures or just talk.
He’s taken that big personality to Iowa City, regularly mingling with fans at every opportunity. He’s proud to be part of “Iowa Nice.”
“You guys have probably heard that saying. That’s how it is,” Epenesa said. “My teammates are genuinely nice people and they’re good football players. They’ve helped bring me along since fall camp. I’m really appreciative of my teammates and they’ve helped me so much.”
Epenesa is glad to pass it on, particularly to the kids at Stead.
“At a place like Iowa City or the state of Iowa — where there’s no professional football or any professional teams — (kids) have Iowa and Iowa State. That’s who these kids look up to,” Epenesa said. “All of us are iconic players that they want to be someday. It doesn’t matter if you’re a starter or a scout team player or whatever you are. They see you wearing that Tigerhawk that says Iowa football next to it and they go crazy. It’s their dream to meet Hawkeye football players.”
Epenesa, a defensive end, has nine tackles, including 2 1/2 for losses, along with 2 1/2 sacks, four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble for the Hawkeyes, who are 4-2 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten entering their 11 a.m. game Saturday at Northwestern.
The adjustment from high school football to Division I has been smooth, but a zoom-in, zoom-out trip to the metro-east during Iowa’s bye week was what Epenesa needed. He was at Edwardsville’s game Friday to watch his brother, Eric, a sophomore wide receiver and linebacker for the Tigers.
“I was so ready to come home. It’s a good feeling,” Epenesa said. “I was getting a little homesick. ... You guys know I’m a big family person. I love my family and it’s hard to be away from them for so long. It’s good to be around them.”
Epenesa, who was a five-star recruit, backs up redshirt junior Parker Hesse on the right side of the Hawkeyes’ defensive line. He would like to be playing more, but he knows it’s about capitalizing on opportunities.
“My mindset is when I get out there, make the most of it,” he said. “Any time I’m in, I just try to get to the quarterback. I try to make the right read and get there — get to my spot, make a play or make it hard for (coaches) to keep me off the field. That’s the biggest thing right now. We’ve got guys in front of me that know how to do their job and know how to do it very well. That’s why they’re starting. I’m here to learn.”
The competition in the Big Ten Conference and at NCAA Division I, Epenesa said, is “on a whole other level.”
“I haven’t gone against a tackle who’s under 6-6,” he said. “They’re just big people. You’ve just got to get your mind right and focus because they’re bigger, faster and stronger. But you also realize you’re a big guy, too, and you just do what you do. That’s what it comes down to.
“In the end, football is still football.”
One of the hardest parts of transitioning to college has been giving up on the other sports.
As a senior at Edwardsville last spring, Epenesa was a state-champion discus thrower. On the basketball court, he averaged 15.3 points and 13.2 rebounds to help the Tigers to the Class 4A state tournament.
Epenesa still loves basketball but has learned how difficult it is at the Division I level.
“I miss basketball a lot,” he said. “I’ve made friends with the basketball players and I’ve already been in Carver Arena playing basketball with them, playing pickup games. I thought I was going to go out there and play good, but college basketball is on a whole other level.
“I thought I would give them competition, but they’re too good. Our basketball team is going to be super-good this year.”
David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm