Harty: Tracing the roots of A.J. Epenesa’s decision
IOWA CITY, Iowa – So much had to happen for A.J. Epenesa to commit to the Iowa football team, as he did on Sunday.
His decision can be traced all the way back to his father’s decision to transfer from Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant to the University of Iowa in 1995 in order to play football.
Without that decision, the Epenesa family probably wouldn’t have a connection to the Iowa football program.
So even to this day, Hayden Fry is helping the Iowa football program, considering he was the head coach when Epenesa Epenesa transferred to Iowa. Fry allowed Epenesa to make the huge jump from NAIA to the Big Ten as a walk-on.
Epenesa never achieved stardom at Iowa, lettering just once in 1997, but he found a new family for life.
Fry used to tease Epenesa, who had moved to Mount Pleasant from American Samoa, about his unusual name, calling him “Repeat” during his time as a Hawkeye.
Iowa had something that no other program could offer the younger Epenesa; a chance for him to follow in his father’s proud footsteps as a Hawkeye.
The list of schools in pursuit of A.J. Epenesa reads like a Who’s Who of the college football elite, powers such as Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame. They all could offer more glamour and prestige, and a better chance of competing for a national title. But they couldn’t offer the same level of comfort and acceptance that the Epenesa family feels with Iowa.
Personalities also come into play. And it seems that A.J. Epenesa’s laid-back personality fits nicely with Kirk Ferentz’s way of doing things as the Iowa head coach.
Veteran recruiting analyst Tom Lemming suggested about two weeks that Iowa was the leader for Epenesa, not only because of his father’s connection to the program, but also because Lemming felt that A.J. Epenesa was different than most of the star recruits that usually consider elite programs almost exclusively.
It certainly helped Iowa’s cause to have won a school-record 12 games this past season because a father’s influence only goes so far.
Ferentz had to make the program attractive from a football standpoint.
“It played into it, but I feel like I’ve known for a while now that I wanted to come here and commit and play football for Iowa,” A.J. Epenesa told Hawkeye Reports.com shortly after committing on Sunday. “The season this year just kind of made it even better because I can be part of the success they’re having and hopefully bring more success to the team.”
The younger Epenesa, who is a 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end, also had to develop into a star recruit in order for this story to happen. Most of the former Iowa football players don’t have sons who become 5-star recruits with their choice of colleges.
A.J. Epenesa is a rare exception, although, ironically, he is one of two prize recruits in the 2017 class with a father who played football at Iowa.
The other is 4-star defensive back Isaiah Pryor, who is the son of former Iowa defensive end Richard Pryor and a Georgia native. Isaiah Pryor has visited Iowa multiple times and he considered the Hawkeyes before committing to Ohio State this past summer. Isaiah also has an older brother who played football at Iowa recently as a walk-on lineman.
But in Isaiah’s case, family connections weren’t enough to convince him to be a Hawkeye.
The beauty in landing a player of A.J. Epenesa’s caliber is that he now becomes a spokesperson for Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class. Other star recruits now might think if the program is good enough for Epenesa, then at least it’s worth taking a closer look.
The fact that Epenesa lives somewhat nearby in Edwardsville, Ill., probably helped Iowa’s cause, too. His family can drive back and forth from the home games without having to spend most of the football weekends on the road.
His father can reconnect with the Iowa program through his son’s experience, although, it’s not as if Epenesa Epenesa ever has strayed too far from his alma mater.
If anything, the bond has strengthened over time.
Epenesa Epenesa didn’t pressure his son to pick Iowa because he wanted A.J. to make what was arguably the biggest decision in his life to this point.
A.J. Epenesa apparently feels that Iowa is the best place for him to succeed as a student-athlete.
It’s his new home away from home, much to the delight of his father and to Iowa fans.