By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse doesn’t pay much attention to social media because it’s just not his thing.
He is also prohibited from being on Twitter as one of the team rules under Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.
But Hesse doesn’t live in a cave by himself, either.
He has friends and family members who are active on social media and who keep him informed about current events, including the recent post on Facebook by Eppy Epenesa in which he praised Hesse for being a good football player, a team leader and a mentor for Epenesa’s son.
Eppy Epenesa is a former Iowa defensive lineman and the father of sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa, who came to Iowa as a five-star recruit in 2017 and then showed flashes of brilliance as a true freshman last season.
The younger Epenesa was listed behind Hesse on the spring depth chart, which was released last week, and that didn’t sit well with some Iowa fans. They voiced their displeasure on social media and that caused Eppy Epenesa to take action by praising Hesse on Facebook.
“I’m not too into social media a whole lot, but somebody did show me that,” Hesse said Tuesday. “I was really impressed with his attitude towards it, and obviously, that comes out in A.J.
“A.J. is a great guy as well. And you can definitely see that with the way he was raised, his family, that’s the type of person A.J. is, too.”
Hesse’s family also deserves praise because Parker embodies so many of the selfless and team-first characteristics that are common with players who have excelled under Kirk Ferentz.
Hesse was lightly recruited in high school, but the Iowa coaches, especially defensive line coach Reese Morgan, saw something special in the Waukon native. They saw a frame that could get bigger and a good kid with talent and a burning desire to succeed.
A former quarterback in high school, Hesse only weighed 218 pounds when he arrived on campus in 2014. He played linebacker his first year before switching to defensive end, where he is now preparing to start for a third consecutive season and weighs over 260 pounds.
“I think that was one of the major draws in terms of me being recruited here,” Hesse said. “I knew the tradition of it being a developmental program and when I met everyone on the coaching staff and the strength staff as well, I knew that if I wanted to maximize my potential as a football player, the best place for me to go would be Iowa.
“Obviously, I’ve changed positions and had to gain a lot of weight. But at no point did I ever second-guess what the coaching staff was doing. They’ve been doing it for a long time and they found a place for me to contribute to help the team. They knew what they were doing and they helped every step of the way.”
Hesse, as a fifth-year senior, symbolizes the Iowa way under Ferentz as much or more than any player on the team. Any coach would love to have a roster filled with physical freaks like A.J. Epenesa, and some come close to doing it at schools such as Alabama and Ohio State.
But Iowa isn’t like those schools, and probably never will be.
Ferentz has to rely on players who often need time to develop physically. Ferentz has to trust his judgement and take chances on some recruits.
Hesse picked Iowa over scholarship offers from South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois. Iowa State was interested, but former head coach Paul Rhoads reportedly never made an offer.
As a recruit, Hesse had virtually nothing in common with the highly decorated A.J. Epenesa. But as Hawkeye teammates, they now have much in common and a mutual respect that helps to create a positive and productive work environment.
Hesse used his experience and his team-first attitude to help ease A.J. Epenesa’s transition to college, much like the veteran players did when Hesse joined the program in 2014.
“That’s kind of the right of passage; when you’re a younger guy, you don’t know a whole lot,” Hesse said. “Sometimes, it’s confusing the first time you see things. I’ve had countless guys who were older than me that helped me in certain situations or helped me along the way.
“So I think as you get older, you only hope that you can do that well for the younger guys on the team, try to develop them and make them the best player they can be.”
Hesse was eager to help A.J. Epenesa make the transition to college because Hesse knew the team ultimately would benefit from it, but also because of A.J.’s personality and attitude.
“He got here, and obviously, being a highly touted recruit, sometimes there are a lot of expectations,” Hesse said. “Some guys handle it well and some guys don’t. And A.J. when he got here he was extremely down to earth. The thing about it is he loves being a teammate and being a team member.
“And I think that’s one thing we have going for this team, and I think with the defensive linemen specifically right now, we’re all really close and we all want to do it together. And going forward that’s something we can really build on to, hopefully, become a really successful football team.”
Hesse has shown a knack for making big plays as a Hawkeye. He had 10 ½ tackles for loss last season, along with a key interception in the overtime victory at Iowa State, and two forced fumbles.
But his influence goes way beyond the football field.
“We interview players at the end of the season and we ask them who you respect and why you respect them and Parker is one of the guys who is at the top of that list,” Reese Morgan said Tuesday. “And it’s because of the way he works, his day-to-day operations. He finishes everything and he’s as tough as they get.
“He’s been that way long before he got here and he’s maintained that. He certainly still has work to do. He got reached blocked a couple times the other day in practice. If you talk to anybody in our room, they would hold him in extremely high regard.”
Morgan became emotional on Tuesday as he talked his relationship with the players, both past and present. Fans only see the players and coaches for a few hours on Saturday in the fall. They don’t see the countless hours that the players and coaches spend together working for a common goal.
Fans don’t see the acts of kindness and leadership that occur on a daily basis behind the scenes as the veteran players help the younger players adjust.
Parker Hesse has earned everything that has come his way at Iowa, from his playing time to the respect and admiration of his teammates and coaches.
Defensive end is probably Iowa’s deepest position at this stage with four experienced players returning. Junior Anthony Nelson is listed as the other starter ahead of senior walk-on Sam Brincks.
Combine them with Hesse and Epenesa and Iowa has the makings of a rock-solid group of defensive ends.
Fatigue never should be a problem with four proven defensive ends sharing time, nor should motivation be a problem with the competition so fierce in practice.
“That’s something we really want to take pride in going into this year,” Hesse said. “We’ve got a lot guys who can contribute and a lot of guys who can make plays that really change games. So we’re thinking we always want to have an attitude of attack through the whistle and sideline to sideline.
“That’s how we want to play because you know you have another two guys that are standing on the sideline chomping at the bit to get in and do it themselves. I think that support and also sort of competition is something that can makes us better, and hopefully, pretty good.”
Hesse came to Iowa as a teenager with a dream and will leave as a young man with so much to be proud about.
“Sometimes, it’s just surreal how many years and time has passed by,” Hesse said. “You look back at 15 spring practices every year. Each one is long, it’s competitive, it’s demanding. So when you think back, that’s a long time.”