The Epenesa family gathered with longtime Iowa trainer John Streif in the tunnel at Carver-Hawkeye Arena before Saturday's men's hoops game. For the patriarch, Eppy Epenesa, who played football at the school, reuniting with one of the Hawkeyes most unifying forces signaled extreme comfort and happiness.
While Eppy's son, A.J. Epenesa, a high school sophomore, could feel the connection between his father, Streif and a host of other greeters on campus, it wasn't until moments later that he understood the passion Iowa people have for their teams.
The Epenesas walked out to their seats with fans chanting A.J.'s name, encouraging him to come play for his father's alma mater. It lasted throughout the contest against Northwestern. He continued until the brood left town and returned home to Edwardsville, Ill.
"I was awestruck," A.J. said. "I couldn't even fathom how that was happening. It was just a great experience. It was a blessing to me because not many people get stuff like that.
"It just made me so happy to hear things like that and how they want me to be there and be a part of that. We're all just regular people but they care enough about it to recognize me and say stuff like that. It makes me feel good."
A.J. is one of the most sought after players in the 2017 recruiting class. Scout.com lists him as a four-star recruit and he reports scholarship offers from at least 15 Power 5 Conference schools, including Iowa, Florida State, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Missouri, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, UCLA and Wisconsin.
"I feel like a do a pretty good job of keeping myself level headed. It's just a matter of having confidence in yourself, knowing you have the ability to do good things, but not having to talk about it. It's about showing it on the field, not talking about it," he said.
Eppy, who graduated from Iowa in 1997, agrees.
"He understands when I tell him that the reason these people are so interested in him is because of all the hard work he's put in. He knows he has to keep doing that and not get caught up in the attention," Eppy said.
A.J. grew up learning about the Hawkeyes and attending games as a kid. Saturday's visit solidified his beliefs.
"It was amazing," he said. "It's always good to go back there in Iowa City. It was just another great experience going back and seeing that great place. It was real nice and just real fun to be there. It always is."
"They just tell me information about how Iowa is and their tradition," he said. "They tell me how certain people fit and if they felt like someone didn't fit they wouldn't tell him that they needed him. But they have a lot of confidence in me that I'm the type of player and person they want. They always support me in everything that I do. They're a really good group of coaches there. They're amazing."
A.J. stopped at Iowa a few times during the construction of its new state-of-the-art facility. He saw it at almost completion for the first time on Saturday.
"It's amazing. It's a top of the line facility. I don't think it gets much better than that," he said.
While the Hawkeyes enjoy a head start in the recruitment of A.J. based on history and connection, the younger Epenesa plans to experience the process to its fullest.
"I've always been a huge Iowa fan. Growing up, I always loved Iowa and I still like Iowa," he said. "But I'm going to keep an open mind because there are other great schools out there that are just like Iowa. I know there are a lot of schools out there that are good for me, that could be better for me.
"But Iowa will always be on my list until the end of the run because it's something I've always dreamed about, playing at Iowa. But there's no guarantee on anything and I definitely will keep an open mind on my recruiting and how things will go in my decision."
A.J. said that Iowa is the only school he's visited. He is scheduled to be at Notre Dame later this month and then will see Michigan and Michigan State during spring break. Others will follow through the summer.
"I never really put any thought into where I'd actually want to go because I haven't been able to compare anything to Iowa. We'll have to start narrowing it down sooner or later but I'm going to take visits first, compare and see how things are looking for me and then I'll make decision later on," he said.
Eppy is helping his son with the recruiting process he experienced a few decades ago. He also is allowing his offspring to lead the way.
"He likes to talk with me and guide me but he leaves a lot of the talking to me and how I see things. He makes sure that I speak for myself and that he doesn't speak for me because he's not making the decision on where I'm going to school. I'm making the decision. But he does have an influence because it's what's right for the family as long as it's also what's right for me," A.J. said.
And the final choice will included more than just football.
"I don't really know what I want to major in but I know the Big Ten has always been really strong academically and athletically," A.J. said. "That's important to me to have a good academic program but also having a good football program. I think Notre Dame fits in there as well. I like them a lot. They have one of the strongest combinations of academics and football in the nation."