By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Iowa football fans will never see anybody like A.J. Epenesa again.
I feel confident in saying that because of the unusual circumstances in which Epenesa, as a five-star recruit, accepted being a reserve for two seasons at a developmental program, and then performed well enough in his only season as a starter to now project as a high first-round NFL draft pick.
That is A.J. Epenesa's legacy at Iowa, a rare blend of talent, humility and patience.
And now it’s time for him to start building a new legacy in the NFL, because even with one season of college eligibility remaining, A.J. Epenesa hs nothing left to prove as a Hawkeye.
It’s time for him to conquer a new challenge and to make more money with one signing bonus than most of us will make during our entire lifetime.
Epenesa announced his decision to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft Tuesday on Instagram. He thanked everybody who helped him reach this point, which shouldn't come as a surprise because that's how A.J. Epenesa rolls.
He is second Iowa player to declare for the draft, joining junior defensvie back Geno Stone.
That number is almost certain to grow to three with junior offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs also expected to declare for the draft this week.
All signs point to Epenesa being a first-round pick as a hard-charging defensive end.
And when that’s the case, you have to take the money and run because this is the kind of money that will change lives forever, not just A.J.’s life, but the lives of his loves ones.
Playing football at the highest level is a violent and dangerous race against time.
Selfishly, I’d love for Epenesa to return for his senior season.
Imagine another season with him and fellow defensive end Chauncey Golston wreaking havoc off both edges.
Imagine another season with Epenesa as a highly respected team leader and fan favorite.
And imagine another season with Epenesa’s beloved family sharing in the Hawkeye experience before and after games.
It would make for a storybook ending, but this story already has been written because A.J. Epenesa has nothing left to prove as a Hawkeye.
One of my lasting memories from the Holiday Bowl was seeing members of Epenesa’s family still tailgating in the parking lot outside of the stadium in San Diego more than two hours after the game.
It was as if they were trying to savor this one final moment of A.J.’s college career because they knew it was about to end.
A.J. Epenesa’s legacy stretches all the way to Hayden Fry, considering Fry was the Iowa head coach when A.J.’s father, Eppy Epenesa, transferred from Iowa Wesleyan to Iowa in the mid-1990s.
Eppy Epenesa never achieved stardom at Iowa as a defensive tackle, but he fell in love with being a Hawkeye and then passed that love on to his son.
A.J. Epenesa had his pick of colleges coming out of high school, but he picked Iowa largely because of his father’s influence.
It was always A.J.’s decision, but he saw how much his father loved being a Hawkeye, and he grew up around so many other Hawkeyes to where nothing else seemed better.
A.J. Epenesa wore jersey No. 94 at Iowa in honor of former Iowa defensive end Jared DeVries, who played with Eppy Epenesa at Iowa. A.J.’s middle initial also stands for Jared.
It was almost as if A.J. Epenesa was born and raised to be a Hawkeye.
The fact that A.J. Epenesa was willing to play at Iowa as a reserve for two seasons speaks volumes about his character because most five-star recruits wouldn’t even have picked Iowa in the first place, let alone play as a reserve for two seasons.
A.J. Epenesa always put the team first as a Hawkeye, and that loyalty and unselfishness can be traced to his parents' influence.
Eppy Epenesa and his wife, Stephanie, deserve credit for instilling the right values in their son.
There was no sense of entitlement when A.J. Epenesa became a Hawkeye. He embraced his role, trusted the coaches and just kept working.
There probably were times when A.J. Epenesa was frustrated with not starting as a freshman and sophomore because he is human. He was the third player in a three-man rotation, even though he might have been the best of the three.
But A.J. Epenesa stayed the course and never gave any indication to the media that he was frustrated.
His father even went on social media one time in response to fans who were complaining about A.J. Epenesa not starting.
Eppy Epenesa told the fans to trust the Iowa coaches, and to show more respect to the starting defensive ends.
It was a powerful moment, and a reminder of how A.J. Epenesa was raised.
His roots are more about substance than style, and that’s why he fit in so well as a Hawkeye under Kirk Ferentz.
But there isn’t anything left for A.J. Epenesa to prove as a Hawkeye.
It’s time for him to spread his wings and to start being paid handsomely for playing a game that has changed the course of his life, but that also takes a physical toll.
Thanks for the memories, A.J. Epenesa, and good luck on this new journey.