While his college choices included nearly every major football program in the country, Edwardsville High junior A.J. Epenesa kept coming back to the warm family feeling at the University of Iowa.
Sure his dad, Eppy Epenesa, played there and A.J. had been to a Hawkeyes game by the time he was 6. But there was no hiding the excitement and joy felt by the younger Epenesa on Sunday when he announced his verbal commitment to play for Iowa.
“I wanted to be open and show my love for the Iowa Hawkeyes,” said the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Epenesa, the No. 1 defensive end recruit in the junior class and one of the top overall recruits regardless of position. “Living the dream. That’s exactly what it is.”
Epenesa had offers from national champion Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida State, Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, Michigan State and many, many more. He said his final two choices were Iowa and Oklahoma.
“The reason I chose Iowa was because it reminded me so much of home,” he said. “I felt comfortable around the coaches and players, I really felt comfortable with all of them and they’re obviously coming off a very successful season. I’ve had a lifelong love for Iowa and I just enjoy being around that atmosphere.
“I feel like there’s no better fan base in the country than the Iowa Hawkeyes fans. It’s just fun to be there, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
Did Epenesa feel he needed to make a decision to relieve recruiting pressure from the constant online speculation, coaches visits and phone calls?
On the contrary, he had the exact opposite feeling.
“I didn’t really see it as a sigh of relief,” Epenesa said. “I feel like I’ve known for a while where I wanted to go. I was so happy to do it, it was exciting being able to finally do it. My dad played for Iowa, but it’s been a love of mine ever since I was young. You can ask anyone, when I was younger I always said Iowa was my favorite team.”
In announcing his decision on Twitter, Epenesa said:
“This week me and my family have made the biggest decision of my life. It has been a long and hard road, but this morning my family and I have come together with all of the coaches and told them that I am committing to the University of Iowa. We are so excited as a family, I want to give all of the thanks to God for blessing me and keeping me safe all of this time.
“Thank you to everyone who has helped me up to this point, it hasn’t been easy. But all of the hard work definitely pays off. It’s a great day to be a Hawkeye! Go Hawks!!!”
Epenesa was recently selected to the MaxPreps 2015 Junior All-American Team. He is ranked the 12th best overall recruit in the country for 2017 regardless of position by 247sports.com, 16th by Scout.com and 23rd by Rivals.com. He also is considered the top recruit in Illinois by all three and the top recruit in the Midwest by Scout.com.
He had six sacks and 11 tackles for loss among his 39 tackles for the 9-1 Edwardsville Tigers last season. Epenesa also was chosen to play in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl next January in San Antonio, Texas.
“A.J. has some blessings that most of us will never get to experience,” Edwardsville football coach Matt Martin said. “At the same time there’s a lot of pressure with that and sometimes a kid just wants to be a kid. They want to hang out with their friends, hang out with their girlfriend, focus on school,
“I think there’s some relief. I think he’s made an informed decision and made a good decision — and for the most part a lot of that pressure will be gone now.”
Iowa is coming off a 12-2 season that ended with a loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The Hawkeyes were the Big Ten champions.
“It’s a high level of football, it’s a good program with a good coaching staff,” Martin said. “Iowa’s a great state to play college sports in and I gave (former Edwardsville star) Vincent Valentine the same advice about Nebraska. There’s no pro sports there and it’s the biggest thing going.”
Epenesa is averaging a team-high 15.7 points and 12.7 rebounds for Edwardsville’s 13-3 basketball team and has broken the school record in the discus throw in track.
Epenesa’s sister, Sam Epenesa, recently finished her college volleyball career at Purdue. His mother, Stephanie, played volleyball and softball at Iowa Wesleyan and later attended Iowa along with his father.
Former Edwardsville teammate Dan Marinko, now a quarterback at Central Missouri, has always been impressed with A.J. Epenesa both on and off the field.
“Even though he’s got all those awards and all that five-star stuff, he’s not satisfied,” Marinko said. “It’s tough to describe but he’s internally motivated. For him it’s different, it something special. You’d see it all the time in practice, he wants to be great and it’s obvious to all those around him.
Marinko played with Epenesa for two seasons.
“He didn’t have an attitude about being hyped up and all that stuff,” Marinko said. “He was just a humble kid. With everything that’s happened he’s maintained who he is and didn’t change a bit. That’s a credit to him.”