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Schwartz: Here One Minute, Gone The Next

January 16, 2020

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

In May 2017, 970 days ago, I wrote:

Thursday afternoon in Moline, Illinois, just a few miles beyond the Iowa border, Edwardsville High School senior and top Hawkeye recruit A.J. Epenesa qualified for next weekend’s Illinois state track and field meet by winning sectional championships in shot put and discus.

The winning discus toss by Epenesa, who’ll play on the defensive line, flew 181 feet, 9 inches – more than 15 feet beyond the second-place qualifier at the sectional.

Epenesa’s discus toss would have been good enough to win a Class 4A state championship in the state of Iowa, but it would have taken second in Class 3A, where Mount Vernon High School’s Tristan Wirfs threw 190 feet, 10 inches.

Wirfs has also committed to the Hawkeyes for football. He’ll play on the offensive line. One can only imagine Iowa track and field director Joey Woody next fall staring longingly through the windows of Iowa football’s practice facility at Epenesa and Wirfs, slipping “Call me!” notes into the pages of their textbooks.

Four years ago this Friday, this appeared on Twitter:

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>It&#39;s a great day to be a Hawkeye!!🐤🐥 <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsGoHawks?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#LetsGoHawks</a> <a href=”https://t.co/rhgTNM74nf”>pic.twitter.com/rhgTNM74nf</a></p>&mdash; AJ Epenesa (@ajepenesa24) <a href=”https://twitter.com/ajepenesa24/status/688787951988297728?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>January 17, 2016</a></blockquote>

<script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>

A lot of great Hawkeyes have come and gone during Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, but Epenesa was different. He was our LeBron. Even for those of us who don’t pay much attention to recruiting, from the time Epenesa put on a pair of shoulder pads in high school we knew who he was and why he mattered.

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Epenesa was a legacy, the son of Epenesa Epenesa, the valuable defensive lineman who played toward the tail end of Hayden Fry’s tenure. If The Son hadn’t picked Iowa no one could have blamed him – a player needs to follow his own path – but it would have hurt.

Except A.J. Epenesa did pick Iowa, one of Kirk Ferentz’s few five-star recruits. Man, did he ever pan out. Twenty-two sacks over the 26 games he played during his sophomore and junior seasons. One forced fumble for every four games he played. He played in three bowl games – all three won by the Hawkeyes. And my favorite: of his 101 career tackles, 36, just over one-third, went for a loss.

A lot of great Hawkeyes have come and gone under Ferentz, a lot of players who heard our cheers. Yet only a small handful have ascended to that rare level, that highest level, the level that tells us – even in the moment – that we’re watching someone historic, someone who makes our pulses race a little faster, someone for whom the mere mention of their name delivers a feeling that we don’t yet have a name for.

When you talk about them to others, you realize nothing you can say will do them justice. So you either fire up YouTube or you fire up the superlatives and hope they believe you.

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It’s a short list of names. One that just got one name longer:

Bob Sanders

Robert Gallery

Shonn Greene

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Brandon Scherff

Desmond King

A.J. Epenesa

It hurts a little, knowing that his next tackle won’t be for the Hawkeyes. He gave us so much in such a brief amount of time.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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