In the first game of his senior season, Aug. 21 against Mountain View at home, South Forsyth running back Stanley Epeagba was still looking for his first varsity touchdown. He cracked jokes with coaches and players in pregame about “breaking one open,” leapt up and down a few times to showcase the sturdiness of his knees, but in his mind he was still internalizing the opportunity in front of him: he was healthy, physically and mentally, and had finally made it.
Often, when varsity skill position players are seniors, scoring a touchdown is expected. That wasn’t the case when Epeagba found the end zone for the first time. In his fourth carry of his varsity career, from the 38-yard line, Epeagba’s lead blocker, Sam Outlaw, was driven into the running lane by four defenders, pushing the entire play backward. Epeagba kept his feet moving, curled around Outlaw’s shoulder and bounced toward the home sideline untouched by a single defender. Green grass in front. Nothing else.
The South sideline erupted, Epeagba’s speed ensured no white jerseys would be around for the moment, and all alone in the end zone he let off a sigh, visible to the fans in the stands by a calm strut, and pointed to the sky.
That score was for Dad. Everything else has been a bonus Epeagba could never have imagined.
After Friday’s 42-35 win over Tucker to send South into the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, Epeagba, surrounded by his family members who had made their way onto the field to celebrate, took more than one moment to collect his thoughts, overwhelmed by the moment.
“This senior class, coach Arnette was talking to us all the way back in the eighth grade and felt like we were a special class,” Epeagba said.
Earlier, a 51-yard touchdown, where he was untouched, helped South to a seven-point win. His coaches previously told him, as long as he was patient with his blockers, he could break a run that could change the game.
“I just followed my blockers, and as soon as I saw the lane, man, I couldn’t believe it,” Epeagba said. “That was exactly what the coaches were telling me.”
These aren’t moments Epeagba just found himself in—these are moments he’s literally pained to conceive.
Shortly after Arnette met with Epeagba, Sam Outlaw, Toki Adeosun and other current seniors, all the way back in the eighth grade, Epeagba’s role as a leader in the group that eventually re-wrote South’s football history was fractured in an instant.
During a weight lifting session—Feb. 23, 2012—Epeagba was in the middle of a 225-pound squat when he heard the “sound of paper ripping.” It echoed across the weight room, and in shock, he was laying on the floor. As soon as he looked down at his knee he knew something was wrong. The pain set in.
“It was like a jolt, a shock sent through my body,” Epeagba said. “I got up and tried to put pressure on it and knew it was bad. It didn’t feel right.”
Epeagba had ripped his anterior cruciate ligament, the one diagnosis no athlete wants to hear: a torn ACL.
As a 14-year old kid, nonetheless, Epeagba began rehabbing his knee. Rather than talking about the details of the rehabilitation, he preferred to block it out. “It sucked,” Epeagba said.
Epeagba’s father, Sam, would talk him through the toughest nights.
“He helped me with my mindset, letting me know that you have talent,” Epeagba said. “All you have to do is work hard and when you combine your talent with hard work, anything is possible.”
During rehab, his father, at the age of 62, died in a car crash, leaving behind Stanley, his three siblings, and mother Ebere.
It was his father’s urgency—the mandate to never give up—that powered Epeagba, not only through his knee recovery, but another trial in his junior year. After a short stint of playing on the junior varsity team as a sophomore, Epeagba was prepared to play varsity his junior year when he hurt his toe in a scrimmage game.
“I thought it was some type of sprain, or something that would heal quickly. I was ready to play the next week,” Epeagba said.
What he had was turf toe, another injury that can sideline a player for an entire season. Despite the nature of turf toe being just an inflammation, athletes have to wait weeks, sometimes months, to come back from the injury.
“That injury was just, it was almost worse,” Epeagba said. “You think it’s so small, but it affects you so much. I just couldn’t run.”
So when his senior season came around, Epeagba, in the world of high school football in the metro area, was still an unknown. Even as the War Eagles have catapulted to historic heights this year, Epeagba has been a player secondary on the stats sheet. However, when you watch his film, there’s no doubting his talent.
“He’s our big-play guy,” South head coach Jeff Arnette said. “He is explosive. He’s powerful. He gives you everything he’s got on each play.”
But it’s not the schematics of Epeagba that make him a weapon for South’s offense, where he’s carried 77 times for 582 yards and 10 touchdowns. Instead, it’s his character.
“His humility is what stands out to me,” Arnette said. “He’s a team player, he never complains, never says I want more or this and that. He’s just always right there, ready to go in, and when he needs to come out he comes out. He’s an ultimate team player.
“I can’t imagine where he’d be without so many things slowing him down. He had to overcome so much early in his high school career.”
Against Norcross, Epeagba scored the team’s first touchdown, a pivotal moment for a team still getting its feet wet in the postseason. His score proved the War Eagles belonged. Against Tucker, a week later, his 51-yard “gallop,” as Arnette describes his running style, counted as the difference in a historic win.
Epeagba doesn’t try to play it cool. There’s no better way to break him than to ask him about the awesomeness of scoring touchdowns in big games. Even though he’s had two cracks at it, he still struggles to get it out into words.
“I was flying. I was just like, oh my gosh, this is happening,” Epeagba said of last week’s score. He’d take a few more moments, comfortably sitting in the quiet, and recalibrate his thoughts.
“When everything happened, I kept wondering, I wasn’t exactly sure where I’d be, how my life would go,” Epeagba said. “The coaches and teammates helped me get through so much. Everybody always knew what I was capable of, but I didn’t know, you know? I needed them. It’s really incredible, everything that has happened until now.”
With one season of a highlight tape, hopefully strong test scores and a charismatic personality well beyond his years, Epeagba’s next test of patience will be waiting until the season is over and using a tight window to contact college coaches. He’s looking at Georgia Southern and Georgia State, with an eye on the University of Georgia.
“Everything has been a journey,” Epeagba said. “I know my Dad would want me to keep working hard.”