By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Maybe the only thing Spencer Lee does better than wrestle is react to his many victories.
It was something I noticed right away about Iowa’s 125-pound national champion from Murrysville, Pa.
Though just a true freshman, the soft-spoken Lee acts mature beyond his age, both on and off the mat.
He wants nothing more than to beat his opponent into submission because that is the brutal nature of wrestling. And he almost always does.
But it’s the moments immediately after one of his beat-downs in which Lee continues to shine.
He doesn’t huff and puff and stick out his chest and say, “hey, look at me” because he feels that would be unfair and disrespectful to his opponent.
As Lee points out, it’s hard enough losing a wrestling match. So to have to watch your opponent celebrate before shaking hands makes a bad situation even worse for the loser.
Lee was taught that lesson by his father, Larry Lee, at a young age and it has been reinforced ever since.
You always hear about losing with class, but the same goes for winning.
“Something I personally believe in is when I see guys celebrating or freaking out and their opponent is standing in the middle waiting to shake hands, I just feel like that’s demoralizing on your opponent,” Lee said while being interviewed on KCJJ radio on Friday. “He’s already disappointed in the fact that he lost the match. Why does he have to wait an extra ten seconds?
“I also think that it’s respectful to your opponent. And I also believe that if you’re celebrating, in my mind, if you’re celebrating it’s almost like a surprise that you won.”
Lee brings up a good point in that a victorious competitor should act like he or she has been there before.
Lee has won so many wrestling matches on grand stages to where he is used to the thrill of victory and can handle the emotional rush.
That doesn’t mean Lee takes winning for granted or that he is above showing emotion.
He was just raised the right way in that his parents taught him to win with dignity and grace.
Spencer Lee represents more than himself when he wrestles. He represents his family, his team and his school, and there is a responsibility that comes with it.
Lee’s parents are both accomplished in the sport of judo, so they’re used to competition and used to winning, considering his mother, Cathy, was an alternate on the Olympic judo team.
Spencer Lee is fortunate to have benefitted from the art of good parenting because life's lessons start at home.
Iowa football player A.J. Epenesa is the same way.
He is similar to Spencer Lee in that A.J’s parents, particularly his father, Eppy Epenesa, have raised him the right way.
A.J. Epenesa is a gifted athlete whose future in football seems exceedingly bright. He came to Iowa last fall as a five-star recruit and made an immediate impact as a hard-charging defensive end.
His father also played football for Iowa in the mid-1990s under Hayden Fry and loved every minute of it. Eppy Epenesa wasn’t nearly as talented as his son, but he embraced the Hawkeye spirit and cherished being part of something much bigger than one or two players.
Eppy’s connection to Iowa played a key role in his son picking the Hawkeyes over virtually every major college program in the country.
A.J. Epenesa arrived at Iowa with high expectations, but with no sense of entitlement, thanks largely to his father’s influence.
Hawkeye fans were reminded of that influence when Eppy made a post on Facebook shortly after Iowa had released its spring depth chart this past Tuesday.
Some fans were upset that A.J. Epenesa still was listed as a sophomore behind senior Parker Hesse at right defensive end and they voiced their displeasure on social media, sometimes at the expense of Hesse.
“I know everyone has an opinion regarding A.J. should start, but he still has a lot to learn on the line,” Eppy Epenesa wrote on Facebook. “Just stay patient Iowa nation. Parker Hesse is good kid from a great family and an amazing teammate to A.J. and he’s a monster of a football player consider his size. A.J. Epenesa is still learning and Parker is a great person to learn from. A.J. will get his share of what he earns by working.”
The message from that post has class written all over it.
Eppy Epenesa basically was telling fans to trust the Iowa coaches and to respect Hesse because he deserves it, not only for his play on the field, but for his leadership and for helping his son adjust to college.
Eppy also appeared on KCJJ radio on Friday and talked about the love and respect that his son has for Hesse and for all of his Hawkeye teammates. It was so refreshing to hear Eppy say all of the things that a parent should say.
Football players arrive at Iowa as naive teenagers and leave as young men. Parker Hesse, as a fifth-year senior-to-be, is a young man who knows a thing or two about mentoring the younger players.
He is also a fine football player who has a knack for making big plays. So it’s not that A.J. Epenesa is listed behind some pushover.
Expect both of them to play a significant role at defensive end, along with junior Anthony Nelson and his backup, senior Sam Brincks.
Fatigue never should be a problem with four experienced defensive ends rotating at the two positions.
Football is the ultimate team sport and that was Eppy Epenesa's message to fans. His son is part of a team and the team always comes first.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz has praised A.J. Epenesa for his humility and for his willingness to fit in as just one of the players on the team. A.J. has been told for years, and has read about how great he is in football, but his father always has been there to temper the enthusiam and to keep things in perspective.
Some parents might not have reacted the same way as Eppy under the same circumstances because they expect instant gratification when their kid has been pampered and given the star treatment.
Eppy Epenesa, on the other hand, expects his son to work hard and to earn everything he gets as a Hawkeye. It’s a lesson and a belief that will help A.J. in all walks of life.
A.J. Epenesa and Spencer Lee both are fortunate to have been blessed with so much natural talent.
But they also are lucky to have parents who understand that a little class and integrity goes a long way.