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'Change the world' | How Taylor Rapp and A.J. Epenesa live out their AAPI heritage with pride

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Many NFL players take the field on game days with a sense of purpose. Whether it's on their mind or written somewhere, it's there because it holds a special meaning. Bills safety Taylor Rapp and defensive end A.J. Epenesa run out of Highmark Stadium's tunnel on Sundays wearing a part of their culture.

Epenesa has a sleeve tattoo across his right arm full of different designs which represent his Samoan culture.

"There's just different symbols from my culture whether it's some of the fine mats, shells, spearheads, different things that represent how our culture was formed, how they survived and how we just worked our way into the world today," he said.

Rapp also has a sleeve tattoo, although his is on his left arm. Similar to Epenesa, his arm is covered in Chinese symbols and proverbs.

"There are a lot of proverbs and a lot of characters that mean a lot to my family," Rapp said of his tattoo. "My grandpa actually did the calligraphy and painting for all the Chinese characters that I gave to the tattoo artist and now have on my body."

Rapp is a Chinese American by way of his mother who is from Shanghai. Epenesa's father grew up in American Samoa. Over the years, the two have learned a lot about where their families come from, and that heritage lives on with them today.

"I believe that whenever other people of our culture see my last name, my tattoo, and my hair, they know that I'm a part of the culture and I'm out there," Epenesa shared. "I've heard the term, wear your heart on your sleeve, and I like to believe in that because this is who I am as a person, this is us as a culture."

Rapp's favorite symbols on his arm make up one of his mom's most cherished proverbs.

"It's basically short for, 'change the world,'" Rapp explained. "To me, it means being able to make a difference, a person who has that contagious energy, someone who's able to make a difference just by interactions and being intentional about every single relationship."

Rapp and Epenesa are making a difference by taking pride in representing where they come from, and teaching others about it as well. May marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month.

It's a time to learn more about the cultures that make up the group, as well as recognize the contributions and influence that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have had on our history, culture, and achievements.

"I tried a lot to learn about my culture and about the people from the island," Epenesa said of his Samoan roots. "That's where my dad's from. That's where he was born and raised. And he did the best he could to give us knowledge about what it's like back home, the values and the morals that we have and just the way that we go about life. So, I try to hold those near and dear because those are things I try to be like in my life."

"I learned it at a very young age from my mom and then my grandparents, who are her parents, just being rooted in Chinese values," Rapp explained. "It's about knowing where you come from, what you started from, being humble, being kind and a good person."

The two believe there are many values people can learn from their cultures and apply to their daily lives.

"I think the biggest thing in our culture is respect and that's whether it's to your elders, to people you don't know, to people who are in a higher or lower position," Epenesa explained. "It's all about treating everybody with respect, and I try to act that way every day."

While taking pride in their culture, they also hope to serve as role models for others in the AAPI community. Rapp understands just how important representation is because he didn't have many athletes of Asian descent to look up to.

"When you want to play in the big leagues or NFL, you want to look up to an athlete that you can identify with or connect to," Rapp explained. "It was tough for me because I didn't really have many Asian people to look up to in the NFL, MLB or really any professional sports leagues."

The six-year NFL veteran has tried to flip that narrative since he was drafted in 2019. Rapp does that by spending time connecting with those who want to follow in his footsteps.

"I try to be as active as possible on social media and Instagram because a lot of younger Asian Americans reach out to me," Rapp said. "I try to take time to lend a hand to them and give them tips, inspiration and words of encouragement. The biggest thing is I feel like I have the Asian American population on my back when I go out there on Sundays to perform well and play the best I can. I feel like I have a lot of pressure and all those kids on my back because my success might help them out. It might open more opportunities and more doors for them."

Looking back at the 2024 NFL Draft, 5.1% of all players that were drafted are of Polynesian ancestry according to Polynesian Football. That number marks a record and includes three picks inside of the top 20. This number is even bigger when you consider the fact that Polynesians make up just .003% of the U.S. population.

While that 5.1% number may seem small, it's a huge achievement for the Polynesian community.

"This draft was really fun to watch because it had to be a record set number of Polynesian players drafted," Epenesa said. "It's something that you just love to see. The culture is growing…it's fun to watch the younger generation of Polynesian kids grow, learn and have confidence. It gives me confidence that our culture can grow as well."

Epenesa and Rapp will continue to put in the work with hopes to see their cultures grow in the NFL as more people from the AAPI community make it to the next level.

"To be that role model for them and to give them hope that, hey it doesn't matter what we look like, we can get there," Rapp said. "That means the world to me."

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