Growing up, A.J. Epenesa and his two oldest siblings were always bigger than their teammates, and their father, Eppy, made sure they worked harder, too. On summer days, they would run a mile to and from a bridge — stopping there to do core workouts — scale hills at a local park, and flip tires and perform ladder drills behind their home in Glen Carbon, Ill., outside St. Louis.
Some of Epenesa’s friends soon joined in. So did friends of his brother Eric. Three would turn into 30, or more. Eppy — who played on the defensive line at Iowa, as A.J. would later — trained them all.
Offering his time, backyard and expertise, Eppy asked for nothing in return. He worked to help them all become better athletes and, by instilling the respect-your-elder values of his Samoan heritage, tried to make them better people, too.
“We just bring people in and make them feel welcome,” Epenesa said. “It’s something we enjoy doing.”
The Epenesa family has six members, but that number swells to 150 on Friday nights during high school football season, when the family’s backyard hosts potluck dinners after home games. Teammates, friends and their parents hold hands to say grace before devouring plates of short ribs and pork steaks.
The Epenesa home would buzz with energy and activity at all hours. All four children excelled in sports, much as their father and their mother, Stephanie, had. Samantha, the oldest, played volleyball at Purdue; Eric plans to walk on as a football player at Iowa; and Iose, an eighth grader, could wind up being the best of them all.
After leaving American Samoa in the early 1990s to play football at Iowa Wesleyan, Eppy met Stephanie, a volleyball player. Later he walked onto the team at Iowa, taking a student loan to pay for his fall semester before earning a scholarship.
For Epenesa, that story of sacrifice and success resonated throughout his childhood. Immersed in Hawkeyes tradition from an early age, Epenesa thrived at Iowa, evolving from a pass-rush specialist his first two seasons into an every-down terror in 2019, when he had 11½ sacks and 14 tackles for a loss. Seven of those sacks came in his final four games.
“Whichever team drafts him is getting him at the right time,” Kelvin Bell, the Iowa defensive line coach, said in a pre-draft interview, “because the arrow is continuing to go up.”
Epenesa considers it a responsibility — and a privilege — to serve as a role model for younger Polynesian athletes, just as the longtime NFL stars Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu did for him. He has not visited Samoa since middle school — he was unable to accompany his family members last summer, when they watched the players on the football team at Eppy’s high school practice with tattered equipment. But he is looking forward to someday returning the support he has received from Samoa.
“Whenever I have the chance to go back,” Epenesa said, “I definitely want to give back as well.”