When he fell to the 54th pick of the 2020 NFL draft, A.J. Epenesa didn’t hide his feelings from the Buffalo media: “I always try to play with a chip on my shoulder,” he said that night.
Epenesa remembers how many teams doubted him. That includes his own. He’ll certainly be carrying that chip into Monday night’s game against the Titans at Highmark Stadium.
“I’ve still got a bad taste in my mouth from last year against Tennessee,” Epenesa said recently in the Bills’ locker room. “I was inactive last year. I didn’t even play.”
So, the third-year defensive end has an extra incentive to play well against the Titans on national TV. Like the rest of his teammates, he hasn’t forgotten the 34-31 loss a year ago on Monday night, in which the Bills’ defense allowed three long scoring drives in the final 20 minutes of the game.
But in his case, it was especially frustrating to watch as a healthy scratch. For Epenesa, it remains a painful memory of a season in which he failed to live up to the expectations of a high pick in his second professional season.
“I would say it was a moment where I probably had a little bit of doubt,” Epenesa said. “I was starting to lose a little bit of confidence. Questions go through your head, like ‘What am I not doing right? What am I not doing to meet the standard?’
“But you just hammer through and keep practicing, keep working. The coaches started to recognize and started seeing. I was never inactive again after that point in the season.”
That doesn’t mean the organization was convinced he would become a top NFL pass rusher. The doubts have been attached to Epenesa from the end of his rookie season. In 2021, the Bills used first- and second-round picks on two edge rushers, Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham.
The playoff loss to the Chiefs made the Bills ever more determined to improve the rush. In March, they signed Von Miller as a free agent. Coming into the season, the pressure was on Epenesa and the other young edge rushers to establish themselves for the Super Bowl favorites.
Epenesa seems to have responded. After two seasons of fluctuating weight and performance, he came to camp at 265 pounds, his ideal weight. He had a terrific camp and carried it over into the season opener, when he had a career-high 1.5 sacks and four QB hits in a 31-10 rout of the Rams.
He felt like himself again — more like the powerful pass rusher who terrorized opposing quarterbacks during his collegiate days at the University Iowa.
“I did. I did,” Epenesa said. “I felt that way going into the game, and I felt that way post-game. It was nothing but joy after the game. Even though I know I made a couple of mistakes, we came out with the ‘W’ against a great football team and all my teammates played so well.”
Epenesa said he’s 13 or 14 pounds bigger than he was last season. As a rookie, he dropped as low as 243 pounds — 32 under his weight at the NFL Combine — in an attempt to get quicker. But he lost power and spent much of the last two seasons battling to put weight back on.
“I’m getting back to being myself, a little more comfortable, a little less anxiety,” he said. “Just kind coming in and feeling like football again.“
You don’t often hear players talking about anxiety. Epenesa said it was the unsettled state of mind that so many Americans felt during the pandemic, the general unease that comes when your life and work routines get thrown out of balance.
“My first year was Covid. My second year was half-Covid, half-normal,” he said. “I tested positive, so they restricted me, even though I was vaccinated. The last two years were ‘it could be this, it could be that.’ There were some many could-bes.
“We’ve got a normal year this year. I don’t have to worry whether someone else is sick and how it affects me. I can focus in on myself, I can focus in on the defense. Building relationships with my teammates. Before, I couldn’t go outside the building. I couldn’t hang out with teammates.”
The pandemic was tough for everyone, but particularly for a rookie who was trying to adjust to life in the NFL, and new teammates. Epenesa said he’s spent “a crazy amount of time” with teammates this year, which has allowed the players to create an even closer bond.
“I think that had a huge impact on me when it came to being with my teammates,” he said, “And being more comfortable.”
A team is like a family, and Epenesa is a big family man, proud of his Samoan heritage. His father, Eppy, grew up in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, a U.S. island territory in the South Pacific. A.J. has tattoos of fish, birds, tortoise shells and leaves, which are symbols of the Samoan culture.
Eppy Epenesa, a defensive lineman, went to America to play college football at Iowa Wesleyan, where he met his wife, Stephanie. After a year and a half, he walked on at Iowa and played three seasons in the Big 10. He earned a scholarship after his first season there.
“That’s a crazy story, my dad,” said Epenesa, who turned 24 on Thursday. “That’s a long way. It’s a different way of life, compared to Iowa and how the Midwest works. Coming from the island to the state of Iowa, it’s got to be a huge culture shock.
“There was a recruiter who was close to a lot of people on the island. He worked with Iowa Wesleyan. He ended up going back and getting a whole recruiting class off the island of my dad and all his buddies. There was probably a group of like 15 of them.”
Eppy eventually settled in Edwardsville, Illinois, a suburb of Saint Louis, Mo. A.J. has an older sister, Stephanie. He stayed with her in the offseason and he gives his sister a lot of credit with his improved nutrition. He has two younger brothers: Eric is a resort freshman walk-on at Iowa. Iose is a star sophomore lineman at Edwardsville High.
A.J. was a three-sport star at Edwardsville. Months after picking up the discus for the first time, he was a state champion. He was a basketball star who dunked in the eighth grade and played briefly on a 16-and-under team in St. Louis with future Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum.
“My teammate life with Jayson Tatum was short-lived,” Epenesa said. “I played with the St. Louis Eagles at the time. I played up with a 15-16U team. He didn’t stay on that team long. He was talented enough to play with the older guys. I played and practiced with him maybe twice.
“I got some buckets here and there,” he said. “I had a couple of (Division I) offers. I had a couple of teammates who were really elite. Part of their recruiting helped my basketball recruitment. But I had already been recruited for football. I love basketball, don’t get me wrong.“
An NFL locker room is full of guys who played basketball at a high level. They’ll generally tell you they’re the best hooper in the room. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was all-state as a high schooler in Kansas and credits his basketball with his outstanding footwork.
That’s all A.J. needed to hear.
“Jordan thinks he’s pretty good,” Epenesa said. “He sent a video to my DMs the other day. It says, ‘Send this to somebody who can’t guard you in basketball.’ So, he sent it to me thinking I can’t guard him. I’m going to address that here soon.”
One distinction Epenesa could surely claim is the Bills’ top ukulele player. The instrument is a staple of Samoan culture and he’s been playing it since he was a boy.
“Growing up a Samoan, being around my family,” he explained. “A lot of my cousins, they just pick it up and play a song. We’ll travel somewhere and there’ll be a ukulele there and they’ll just pick it up and start playing and singing.
“My family is musically talented,” Epenesa said. “My dad has good rhythm. He loves to dance; he loves to sing. That’s how a lot of my family is.”
Of course, the greatest family talent is rushing the quarterback. Epenesa’s first college sack was against his future Buffalo teammate, Josh Allen. He wound up with 26 over three years at Iowa, including 22 in his final two seasons before leaving school early after his junior year.
But he had only one sack as a Buffalo rookie, when he played only 31 percent of the snaps. Epenesa had a monster game early last season in Miami, getting 11 pressures on 26 snaps. But he had 14 pressures the rest of the season combined, as he struggled with his rush at the lower weight.
The third year could be the charm for the affable Epenesa. He’s at his ideal weight. He looks quick and strong, which was the objective all along. He has a good family feel with this defensive line. He’s the clear No. 3 defensive end and seems ready to come into his own.
“I think there’s momentum there, I do,” coach Sean McDermott said Wednesday. “Again, it’s one game at a time here.”
Yes, it is. The Bills might be the favorites, but they’re taking nothing for granted. The defense ranked first in the NFL last season, but they came into the season feeling they had a lot to prove.
They throttled the Rams in the opener. On Monday, they take on a Tennessee team that scored a combined 76 points against them in wins the last two seasons. It’s another chance to show the country — and the Titans — that this year is different.
“I’m not forgetting how those losses felt,” Epenesa said. “And not wanting to feel that feeling again and remembering what happened in times past.”
Most athletes will tell you the losses stick with you much longer than the wins. When you didn’t even play, it’s even worse. Trust him, Epenesa can taste it.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.