EDWARDSVILLE — The accolades continue to mount for Edwardsville's A.J. Epenesa.
On Wednesday in front of a packed auditorium at the Jon Davis Wrestling Center in Edwardsville, the star defensive end of the Tigers was given his jersey as a member of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound Iowa recruit and No. 1 strong-side defensive end in the nation will play for the West team on Jan. 7 at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas in the 17th edition of the All-American Bowl. The game will feature the top 90 players from around the country and will be televised live on NBC.
Epenesa is the second EHS player to make the All-American Bowl. Rodney Coe, a 2011 Edwardsville grad was chosen for the game during his senior year. Coe is now on the practice squad for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Some of the star-studded alums of the game include: Adrian Peterson, Ezekiel Elliot, Odell Beckham Jr., Jamaal Charles and Andrew Luck.
“I thank God and I thank the Army for blessing me with the opportunity to play in this game,” Epenesa said. “I feel it's the least we can do to show respect and gratitude to the Army soldiers who are fighting for our freedom right now. We can respect them and show that we still think about them and we support them no matter what.”
Tigers' head football coach Matt Martin was happy to see Epenesa bestowed with the honor. It was during his first year at the helm of the Edwardsville program that Coe was named to the team.
“What you see is what you get,” Martin said of Epenesa. “He's genuine, he's a special athlete and he's a special person.”
He added about Coe, “Rodney's doing well and it sounds like he's matured a lot and he's working hard and he's got a great opportunity. It's kind of exciting because you see the pedigree there and you see that A.J. has that opportunity as well.”
One of the most important things to Epenesa is family. He's following in the footsteps of his father, Eppy Epenesa, who was a standout player at the University of Iowa.
He considers his football team to be his family and to see his teammates on hand for the ceremony on Wednesday, along with some of their parents and siblings was a huge honor for him.
“I feel that if all the teams see each other as an actual family, why would you want to let your brother down?” Epenesa said. “Especially on the field, but also making bad decisions off the field. I feel like putting it in that perspective, your family really puts you in position to want to do better and not disappoint.”
Martin pointed to Epenesa's parents and family as the foundation that has molded him into the athlete and the young man he is and the vehicle for his success.
“Look at all the people that came here to support him and that's because A.J.'s family does such a good job of developing a sense of family, a sense of community,” Martin said. “They'll have over 100 people over at their house on Friday. It's not just about A.J., it's about his family and what his family has cultivated and you see the results of that here.”
The sponsor of the program, Gerard Fischer of American Family Insurance in Godfrey, even presented an award to Stephanie Epenesa, A.J.'s mother, for the family's tireless efforts. Martin was also given an award from the Army representatives.
Only two games remain in the regular season for the Tigers and Epenesa wants to go out on a high note. EHS currently sits at 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Southwestern Conference and will play at Alton (0-7) in Week 8 and welcome Granite City (4-3) in Week 9.
“I expect to win these last two games in the season,” Epenesa said. “You can't underestimate anyone, but we're coming out to work and we're coming out to beat you. Just to come out, play hard and execute is what we want and then we'll see who we have first round (of the playoffs) and we'll keep executing, get better and try and beat anybody who comes our way.”