On a team full of superstars...
Running back Mike Epstein has always let his play do the majority of his talking.
If you take a look back at the rosters for Ft. Lauderdale, FL powerhouse Saint Thomas Aquinas over the last few years, you'll recognize names that are either now playing professionally or are standouts at the college level. In Epstein's senior class, a total of 15 players are already committed to FBS schools, with a handful of others still to make their decisions.
And these aren't a bunch of "Group of Five" schools to which these guys are committed. Schools like Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan State, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee, to name a few. Guys like Ohio State WR pledge Trevon Grimes and Florida QB commit Jake Allen were expected to steal the show this season.
But not a lot of the buzz this season for the nation's pre-season #1-ranked team centered around Epstein. And there's a reason for that. But to see why, we have to take a look back to the spring prior to Epstein's junior season, a season where he faced the unexpected far sooner than he would have hoped.
Unlike in the state of Illinois...
Spring football is a big deal in Florida. Teams scrimmage over the course of a few weeks as they stay fresh in the offseason. With the action not really counting toward a record or a championship, players and coaches hope to avoid injury. But Epstein was not so lucky.
During the spring before his junior season, an important one for his recruiting future, Epstein tore his ACL during a practice, ending not only his spring, but also jeopardizing his junior campaign.
Optimistic about the season to come, Epstein admitted that suffering the injury was almost more devastating mentally than it was physically.
"I was scared," Epstein said. "I'd never had an injury that serious before."
After things settled down, Epstein started to see his situation more clearly. In what might have been a defining moment in his recovery, Epstein didn't mope, he didn't look for pity, but rather he focused his attention on his comeback.
"Of course I missed playing," he admitted. "But I had to stay strong. I Knew that God had a plan."
To start his physical comeback, Epstein went to the best in the business in renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Andrews, who has operated on and rehabbed some of the NFL's best, including Adrian Peterson, is THE guy for football ACL procedures.
"I Went to the best in the country with Doctor (James) Andrews," Epstein said. "I stayed up there for a couple weeks for rehab. They have the best facilities."
Following a successful surgery, Epstein didn't waste any time getting back to the sidelines with his Aquinas teammates, though, this time, he was forced to do so in street clothes. He credits his teammates for picking him up when he was sidelined.
"I just continued to be around my team, watching it and taking mental reps," he said. "I was at every practice and workout. Just trying to stay around it. And stay in a routine. They helped me more than I helped them."
One other source of encouragement for Epstein during his recovery came from an all-too-familiar source. Just a few weeks before Epstein suffered his knee injury, star Illinois receiver Mike Dudek suffered his first ACL tear during spring practice in Champaign.
In a way, the two have bonded through their recovery processes, especially after Dudek, who suffered the same injury again this spring, went to Dr. Andrews this spring for his procedure. They are constantly motivating each other as they battle back from similar obstacles.
"We talked a lot after the surgery," Epstein said of his conversations with Dudek, "and we still probably talk at least once a week. I Just keep telling him that God really has a plan. And it's going to be even more special when he's back balling with me."
The first time Epstein carried the ball again...
after his injury was pretty surreal for him. So much hard work and mental resilience had let him to a point where he felt good to be back on the field.
"It felt amazing, but I realized I had a lot of work to do still," Epstein said. "I came a long way, though."
When he strapped up for his team's first game this season, Epstein hadn't carried a ball in a live action game since his sophomore year. Understandably, some had doubts about whether he would ever be the same back who flashed the 4.4 speed and quickness in space.
But Epstein was not among those doubters. He did, however, have one person in particular to whom he needed to prove himself. And that was Mike Epstein.
"I feel like during the year I missed, a lot of people began to doubt me, and I needed to show them that I was back and better than ever," Epstein said. "But I don't feel as if I ever need to prove anything to anyone except myself."
Epstein's comeback game went about as well from an individual standpoint as he could have hoped, as he rushed for over 100 yards and scored a couple times. But no. 1 Aquinas dropped a stunner to Booker T. Washington to open the season.
The loss was really disappointing to Epstein, who at times in the game, put the team on his back, but in a way, it also served as validation that all of his hard work to get back to playing the game he loved, had started to come to fruition.
"Between that game and our preseason game, plus scoring on the opening drive of the year, that's when I knew," he said. "I thought, 'I'm good. Let's go."
Maybe a Duel in the Desert...
Was when things finally clicked for Epstein. After dropping the opener to Booker T. Washington, Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman took over the top spot nationally in the team rankings. But only a handful of weeks later, the Raiders would travel out west seeking to knock off the new number one team.
Ok, so bear with me for a bit, here.
I exchanged a few messages with Epstein leading up to the contest. I knew how much this game meant to him, to his teammates. It was a chance for not only his team to prove they belong among the elite, but also a chance for Epstein to prove that he was back to full strength and ready to carry the load for his team.
Every year I do my best to see every in-state commit play at least once during the high school season. And for the last three seasons, I've been successful. But I never would have imagined that I'd be watching a commit from Florida playing a prime-time, showcase game in Las Vegas of all places.
For whatever reason, I decided to go to that game. I had a bunch of frequent traveler points to burn, so a couple weeks before the game, I made arrangements to be in Vegas for a couple days and see this game for myself. It was kind of like booking tickets to a heavyweight title fight.
And it did not disappoint. Epstein, who had basically cemented his role as the starter, ran tough against one of the most vaunted high school defenses in the country. Florida QB commit Jake Allen had one of his most forgettable games of the season, and Aquinas lost star receiver Trevon Grimes in the second quarter to... an ACL injury.
Once Grimes went down, I could see the intensity in Epstein's eyes grow. He was ready to do whatever he had to do to give his team a chance to win. Yards were tough to come by, but Epstein recorded 7 carries for 86 yards (12.3 yards per carry) and a crucial touchdown in one of the overtime frames.
Long story short, in what was one of the most epic high school games that may ever be played, Aquinas fell in triple overtime after no shortage of special teams and officiating drama.
But that game kind of felt like the turning point for Epstein's season. And probably ignited the fire that refined him into the player who would eventually take home Broward County Player of the Year.
Anyway, I digressed a bit there...
Epstein knew that in order to continue to take his game to a new level, he would have to continue to battle day in, day out, against some of the best players in the country.
"I feel that I practice with and against the best every day, that I can hang with the best," Epstein said. "Our defense does a great job of getting us ready. So when I step on that field we know we're prepared and confident."
And throughout the rest of the season...
It was Epstein who not only toted the rock of the Aquinas offense. He was the rock. Epstein, who split carries with South Carolina commit Kyshaun Bryan for most of the year, paced the Aquinas ground attack.
He would finish the season a state champion, totaling 1,477 yards combined (1,173 rushing) and 20 TD (16 rush, 4 rec.). For a guy who some expected to be nothing more than a role player, he became the blue-collar standout who kept the state title dream intact and didn't get down when the circumstances got tough.
Epstein's success earned him the honor of Broward County Player of the Year as awarded by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. Considering the immense talent that comes out of that area, that is a huge recognition for the guy who just a year earlier was forced to stand on the sideline and rehab his surgically-repaired knee.
But no one was going to tell Epstein he couldn't do it. He knew all along that his comeback would be something special.
The next chapter in Epstein's career...
Will lead him to Champaign-Urbana to suit up for the Illinois Fighting Illini. As if Epstein's playing career wasn't hectic enough, the talented tailback originally committed to the Illini under Coach Bill Cubit. As things turned sour in Champaign, other schools began to encroach upon Epstein's recruitment. Heavy-hitters like Michigan and Louisville even extended an offer at one point to the Illini commit.
Then, in a swift move back in March, new Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman made the decision to relieve Bill Cubit of his duties and quickly hired long-time NFL head coach Lovie Smith. At first, the move came as a shock to Epstein, but the new Illinois head coach reached out to Epstein just a couple days into his tenure. That gesture, Epstein told Illini Inquirer back in March, made a huge impression upon him.
Since then, Epstein has been to campus, had Illinois coaches at his home for visits, and frequently interacted with other recruits, players, and commits on social media. All things considered, Epstein still feels that he made the best choice for his future in both selecting, and sticking with the Illini.
After all, he's never been one to shy away from a challenge.