As a 6-foot-5, 270-pound All-American defensive end, Edwardsville High senior A.J. Epenesa is used to attention everywhere he goes.
He gets it from a tight family, where parents Eppy and Stephanie Epenesa raised four children in their Glen Carbon home and espoused the togetherness of Eppy Epenesa’s close-knit Samoan culture.
He gets attention on the football field, where double-teams and triple-teams are routine in an effort to slow down one of the nation’s top senior football recruits. The game plan for most opposing teams is to find the University of Iowa recruit’s huge frame and familiar No. 99, then run plays in the other direction.
“When they run my way, I try to show them that they shouldn’t,” Epenesa said. “If you’re going to commit to running the other way than me and then try to throw a counter in and run it my way, I’m going to try to show them you made a mistake.
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“You should stick to running the other way — because if you run my way it’s going to get stopped.”
That confidence was forged by the attention he receives from his family — both parents and his older sister were college athletes — and it’s helped him become a high school All-American in football and track as well as an all-state player in football, basketball and track.
In an era where many athletes seek to specialize by throwing everything they have into one sport, Epenesa embraces multiple sports and can be at the center of attention in all three.
He had the second-longest discus throw in the nation last year, a school record toss of 206 feet, 5 inches. In basketball he averaged 16.8 points and 11 rebounds last season and could finish as one of the top five scorers in school history.
Is Epenesa among the best athletes the metro-east has ever seen?
“I’d be curious to see how he stacks up against all the athletes in the history of the state of Illinois,” Edwardsville football coach Matt Martin said. “I’ve got to believe he’s got to be one of the best out there. I’ve just never come across anyone like him. I always say I don’t know if you truly appreciate something until it’s gone.
“At some point, and it might be next summer or next fall, I’ll be like ‘oh ... big boy’s gone.’ Right now we’re still focused forward and not looking back.”
Path to football
When Epenesa was growing up, he played soccer, baseball and other sports before being allowed to play football.
“He kept asking to play football,” Stephanie Epenesa said. “Finally in fourth grade he convinced us to let him play football, so we did and he did really well.”
Even before that, Eppy Epenesa showed him college-level moves in a back-yard training course that also draws as many as 100 Edwardsville sports parents as a hot-spot for post-game gatherings.
I’d be curious to see how he stacks up against all the athletes in the history of the state of Illinois. I’ve got to believe he’s got to be one of the best out there. I’ve just never come across anyone like him.
Matt Martin, Edwardsville football coach
“I probably learned the swim move, spin move, rip move, all that in first grade,” A.J. Epenesa said. “He would stand there and let me make a move on him.”
Once her son began playing football, Stephanie Epenesa made sure she had his birth certificate on hand for those who doubted his age based on his size. Youth football weight restrictions deemed him too large to play in the backfield, so he became a lineman.
“He was a head taller than everybody, but he had a lot to learn because some of these kids had been playing since they were 5,” Stephanie Epenesa said. “With his dad being a football player, they would work on stuff after practices and AJ caught on very quickly. He just loved it.
“He would figure out a way to score every game. He would sack the quarterback or just grab the ball out of someone’s hand and run it in for a touchdown.”
Former Edwardsville quarterback Dan Marinko played with Epenesa for two years in high school, but knew him long before that.
“When he was in middle school, he was playing Little Tigers football and I was out there helping out,” Marinko said. “All of a sudden you see a kid about six or seven inches taller than everybody running faster than running backs and quarterbacks and he’s on the line. Everybody was talking about him from a young age.”
Marinko recalled the way Epenesa soaked up as much as he could from the older players, even as a freshman.
“There was already hype around him at that point,” Marinko said. “He wasn’t selfish, he was a team player and took time to learn from the people around him. He became a leader as soon as he came into the program.”
“Superman among boys”
Over the past three years, the Belleville West football game plan against Edwardsville has remained basically the same.
Avoid Epenesa at all costs.
“We try to get multiple hats on him at all times and we try to run away,” West coach Cameron Pettus said, though the Maroons are hardly alone in that line of thinking when dealing with the University of Iowa recruit and one of the nation’s top seniors. “You have to because he’s that kind of a player. We literally do game plan to run away from him.
“He’s just a monster out there. Physically, nobody can compete with him. He’s just a man among boys, like a Superman among boys.”
Most high school football experts agree. Epenesa was chosen to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Jan. 7, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas and on Jan. 21 he will play in the inaugural Polynesian Hall of Fame Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Two particular plays in the same game against East St. Louis this season, a 20-10 loss, left spectators grasping for adjectives.
He’s just a monster out there. Physically, nobody can compete with him. He’s just a man among boys, like a Superman among boys.
Cameron Pettus, head football coach at Belleville West High School
When East St. Louis linebacker James Knight picked off a pass and ran 60 yards downfield, it was Epenesa who chased him down from behind and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Flyers in the end zone.
On the second play, Epenesa picked an aggressive angle and hauled down Flyers All-American receiver Jeff Thomas on a screen pass. The pair are two of the top players to come through the metro-east in years.
“I saw him catch it and as soon as I saw it, I immediately just started taking off at an angle that would help me make the play,” Epenesa explained. “He had a step on me I ended up making it up and ended up legitimately catching him from behind. I went for a strip as well, but I didn’t get it on that one.”
Epenesa praises coaches like Martin, Tigers basketball coach Mike Waldo and Tigers track coach Chad Lakatos — along with all his assistant coaches —for their help and dedication during the last four years.
He also credits parents Eppy and Stephanie Epenesa for all the opportunities they have provided.
“People try to say I never worked for what I got, like you just basically got recruited because you’re 6-5, 270 pounds and fast and athletic,” he said. “Obviously that has something to do with it, but I guarantee the person that’s telling me that has not even put in half of the work that I’ve put in over the summer. They have no idea.”
Martin feels Epenesa has the potential to play in the NFL.
“I feel like that’s every kid’s goal who’s got recruiting like I have on their hands,” Epenesa said. “That would be a great goal, to come back and provide for my family, but if that doesn’t work out I have to rely on my education.
“Sports are a part of my life and they always will be, so I feel if the NFL doesn’t work out or a football career ... this is still what I do and what I love.”
“Welcome to Iowa, son”
Eppy Epenesa had his own distinguished playing career at the University of Iowa, where he made the team as a walk-on after beginning his career at Iowa Wesleyan. But signing on with the Hawkeyes wasn’t always a given for his son.
A.J. Epenesa had scholarship offers from virtually every top football program in the country, including Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma and many, many more. He committed to Iowa last January during his junior year.
Iowa gave Epenesa his first offer, during the summer before this sophomore year even though he had missed a portion of his freshman season with a broken leg. It helped that Epenesa had earned defensive line MVP honors at the Nike Camp in Chicago despite competing against players two and three years older than him.
We came through the tunnel in Carver and some of the people started chanting his name, to come to Iowa. Then everybody else started chanting. A.J .was embarrassed a bit with the response from the people, but we told him ‘Welcome to Iowa, son.’
Eppy Epenesa, Father of Edwardsville H.S. multi-sports standout A.J. Epenesa
One particular recruiter from Alabama found out the hard way that using the “look at me” approach did not go over well with Epenesa during a visit to the high school.
“I know Alabama has a great reputation, but I wasn’t feeling the way he was coming at me with ‘Look at this, look at this big old ring on my finger,”’ Epenesa said. “I’m not really that type of guy. No disrespect to Alabama obviously, they’re a big time school with big time players and big time names, big time faces. That’s an awesome deal with the national championship. Everyone wants to win a national championship.”
On both of his trips to the Iowa campus, including an official football recruiting visit, Hawkeyes fans made sure to make the son of one of their former players feel welcome.
An earlier unofficial visit during Epenesa’s sophomore year was attending an Iowa basketball game at Carver Arena.
“We came through the tunnel in Carver and some of the people started chanting his name, to come to Iowa,” recalled Eppy Epenesa, a supervisor with Southwest Airlines. “Then everybody else started chanting. A.J .was embarrassed a bit with the response from the people, but we told him ‘Welcome to Iowa, son.”’
During his junior season, Epenesa made a visit to see an Iowa football game with several high school teammates, including Nathan Kolesa.
“Everybody started coming over and flooded him, giving him a hug or a high-five, yelling at him that he’s making the right choice,” Eppy Epenesa said. “The student section noticed him ... it was getting crazy there with them chanting ‘We want A.J., we want A.J. Getting a chance to go there with my own kid, to get that response from Iowa people, it was pretty powerful. “
While Epenesa had competed in track during middle school, earning all-state honors in the hurdles and high jump, he did not compete in the discus or the shot put until high school.
“Something that a lot of people probably don’t realize is that he has really only thrown for about eight months in his entire life,” said Lakatos, Edwardsville’s track and field coach. “He was an all-state hurdler and high jumper in middle school and plays football and basketball from June until late March. He gets about 2 1/2 months a year to work on his throwing technique, so to be as good as he is he has had to be extremely coachable and a very hard worker.”
Martin, who works closely with Epenesa in track as Edwardsville’s throws coach, agreed.
“Usually you spend the first year just learning the (discus) release,” Martin said. “I watched him start throwing the discus and it was coming out natural. Because of his gifts, because of his balance, he was picking up on that stuff pretty quickly. It just fast-forwarded him several years.”
Epenesa’s personal and school record in the discus, 206 feet, 5 inches, was the second-longest throw in the nation last season. It’s the second-longest toss in state history according to Illinois High School Association records.
He won the Class 3A state title in the discus as a junior and finished second in the shot put after finishing second in discus and ninth in shot as a sophomore. He also holds the Edwardsville shot put record at 60 feet, 4.5 inches.
206’ 5”Epensa’s personal best discus throw, the second best in the U.S. last season
60’ 4.5”Epenesa’s school-record shot put throw
16.8 and 13.4Points and rebounds per game last basetball season, both tops at Edwardsville
23 According to 24/7Sports, Epenesa’s national rank among all high school football players
Epenesa also could wind up in the top five of Edwardsville’s all-time basketball scoring leaders.
Marinko also was a basketball teammate of Epenesa, whose strength and skill at that sport make him an immovable object in the post.
“You could literally throw it in anywhere within a five-foot vicinity of the rim and he’d go up and grab it,” Marinko said. “You’d see a 265-pound kid being able to go up way up in the air and make plays over anyone. It was impressive.
“No matter what he’s doing, his competitive nature is absolutely off the charts. He just has so much fun playing anything.”
Epenesa once played with the St. Louis Eagles AAU basketball team, where his teammates and friends included Duke University freshman Jayson Tatum, Iowa freshman Tyler Cook and St. Louis University recruit Jordan Goodwin.
Edwardsville basketball assistant Dustin Battas said it has become routine in practices to have players or coaches use football practice pads to pound Epenesa just to get him used to the pounding he takes from opponents in games.
“Sometimes watching film after the game it’s eye-opening just to see what he endures throughout a game as far as physical contact goes,” Battas said.
Epenesa seems to enjoy the drills.
“They basically just step back a couple feet and run right into me while I’m trying to run a layup,” he said. “That’s a big part of my success is that we practice the way we’re going to play. That’s one thing I admire about Coach Waldo, he puts so much time and effort into coaching and scouting that you feel like you’ve already played the game by the time the game is there.”
Before they were high school All-Americans, Sam Epenesa and younger brother A.J. were just two fun-loving kids growing up in a close family.
Working out in the family’s backyard, where tire-flips and obstacle courses and sprints filled their summers, the sister and brother gradually welcomed many of their friends to workouts led by their father.
A familiar part of the workout included a two-mile run. It began in the subdivision and continued on Meridian Road to the top of a nearby hill. Brother and sister would walk across the bridge, rest for a while, then do sit-ups, push-ups and core workouts before running back home.
Even at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, A.J. Epenesa still looks up to his 6-foot sister, who paved the athletic road before him by earning a scholarship and becoming a standout volleyball player at Purdue.
The same Epenesa that terrorizes quarterbacks and sniffs out running plays like a heat-seeking missile found part of his motivation from his older sister.
“My sister was a big role model for me,” A.J. Epenesa said. “She set the bar pretty high and my main goal going into high school was I wanted to be bigger and better than my sister was, because everyone knew who Sam was. Everyone knew that she was that big-time Under Armour All-American volleyball player going to Purdue.
My sister was a big role model for me. She set the bar pretty high and my main goal going into high school was I wanted to be bigger and better than my sister was, because everyone knew who Sam was.
A.J. Epenesa, speaking of his sister, Sam Epenesa, a stand-out volleyball player at Purdue
“She was smart and she was gifted in the game of volleyball and everything she did.”
Family is everything to the Epenesas and that begins with mom and dad. Eppy Epenesa came to the U.S. from American Samoa, where he was the youngest of seven children. He played football at Iowa Wesleyan, brought to this country by a Samoan coach, before later transferring to Iowa and playing there from 1995-98.
Stephanie Epenesa grew up in Edwardsville, excelling at sports before playing college volleyball at Iowa Wesleyan. The couple met while playing pick-up volleyball at IWU and that connection has produced a large, loving family.
“It’s a family environment,” Eppy Epenesa said. “I was brought up in a home that was God first and then family, then everything else happens after that. Everything is all about respect, too, and your faith.”
Teammates and Brothers
On a recent rainy night, the smell of marinated pork and savory vegetables filled the air in the Epenesa kitchen. Eppy hovered over the stove as A.J. arrived home a bit late after driving some teammates home.
He he had taken a few extra minutes to speak with one of the Tigers’ freshman players, the younger brother of a former teammate.
Teammates are “brothers” to Epenesa — and this three-sport star has a lot of brothers. He would do anything for any of them and on this night felt the need to pass along some senior advice.
Don’t let that stone-cold stare fool you. Or the large tattoo that covers most of his heavily muscled upper right arm, which in the Samoan culture signifies the importance of coming of age and respect for God.
“He’s just a very sweet kid,” said Stephanie Epenesa, who works in the finance department for Boeing. “People see him as menacing, but to me he’s a very sweet and gentle boy He’s my little boy. I’m always watching him at the game and wanting to make sure he’s OK — and he’s the biggest guy out there.”
Those aren’t just a mother’s words.
Martin knows Epenesa as well as anyone outside his family, having coached him for four years in football and four years in track as his position coach for discus and shot.
A.J. is very competitive and has a lot of fire in his belly, but I’ve seen him after a devastating loss take a few minutes to hug a kid or take a picture — even though every part of him just wants to get to the locker room and be able to let his emotions out.
Dustin Battas, Edwardsville assistant basketball coach
The family influence shows in the way he treats and respects his extended sports family.
“He wants to do well and he wants to please,” Martin said. He really cares about his teammates, it’s not just about him and what he’s going to get to do beyond here. He really wants his teammates to do well.”
Battas has also seen the physical big man’s softer side.
“One of the most impressive things to me about A.J. is how he handles himself around opposing fans and kids,” he said. “He is constantly getting asked for pictures and autographs and handles that with such grace. A.J. is very competitive and has a lot of fire in his belly, but I’ve seen him after a devastating loss take a few minutes to hug a kid or take a picture — even though every part of him just wants to get to the locker room and be able to let his emotions out.”
As parents who both played college sports, getting their children involved in sports was important to the Epenesas. But making sure their children grew to love and respect those around them was even more of a priority.
“We’re very happy for him and it’s been very exciting,” Stephanie Epenesa said. “He loves it. He’s athletic, but he really enjoys being part of a team and playing a sport.”
And to those metro-east coaches ready to throw a celebration party when Epenesa graduates and heads to Iowa, there are two more brothers on the way.
Eric is a still-growing freshman with size 14 shoes who plays football and is rapidly becoming a standout wrestler. Then there’s Iosefatu, known as Iose (Yo-say), who is bouncing all over the house these days as a 9-year-old fourth-grader with size 10 shoes.
“He looks exactly like A.J. at that age,” Stephanie said.
Epenesa followed his sister’s stardom and accolades by blazing his own trail, but he realizes comparisons will be inevitable for his younger siblings.
“That’s something I want for them, but something also I don’t want for them,” A.J. Epenesa said. “I don’t want people to compare them to me. I talked to our wrestling coach about Eric ... he’s amazing on the mat.”
And as for Iose?
“He’s a freak, if that’s the proper way to put it,” A.J. said. “People try to say I’m a freak, but he is. I went to one of his Little Tigers football practices and he’s very impressive in football. He was just out there pancaking people.”