Tristan Wirfs of Mount Vernon is The Gazette's 2017 Male Athlete of the Year
Big body. Big character.
MOUNT VERNON – Tristan Wirfs is a big man with an even bigger presence.
He exhibited a rare gift of meshing tremendous size with the athleticism of someone half his stature, leaving an imprint in four sports during his time at Mount Vernon High School.
Beneath the helmets and headgear is a warm smile that can light up a room. His shoulder pads and various jerseys hide a heart that is twice the size of his 6-foot-5, 315-pound frame.
“Tristan has a lot of God-given talent in ability and size, but his heart is as big as he is,” Mount Vernon head football coach Lance Pedersen said. “He truly cares about his teammates, his classmates and his community. He loves his mother and sister. I think that is what drives him. He’s just an amazing person.”
Wirfs produced an impressive prep career, becoming one of the nation’s top linemen in his class, capturing state individual titles in track and wrestling and earning two varsity letters in baseball. Today, The Gazette recognizes Wirfs as its 2017 area high school Male Athlete of the Year.
“It was pretty special to me,” Wirfs said. “You’re competing year-round, but you’re competing with friends. You have fun in high school sports. I wouldn’t have wanted to do any of the things or any of the sports I did if I didn’t have fun doing them.”
As humble as ever
His exploits are well-known, signing to play football at the University of Iowa and etching his name in the record books with the state’s second-best shot put of 67 feet and the fifth-best discus throw at 195 feet, 2 inches.
Despite all the attention and accolades, many don’t know that Wirfs is still the same grounded young man with an infectious grin, who used to help his grandfather with yard work just so they could spend time together.
The accomplishments can’t explain his willingness to stop his car and engage in long conversation instead of just a fleeting wave to a coach out for an evening walk.
His statistics don’t show his eagerness to help as an elementary school aid, sitting on the floor and rolling a ball back and forth with a special-needs student, who was getting a brief reprieve from her wheelchair.
“I’m very proud of his work ethic,” said his mother, Sarah Wirfs. “I’m proud of his personality and how he lives his life. I’m proud of how he treats people.”
Sarah Wirfs made a major impact, shaping her son’s character. Her social nature rubbed off on him, leading to his desire to be active with friends in sports.
Indirectly, she passed even greater lessons as a single mother of two children. Wirfs said he can remember nights where his mom came home exhausted from work. He overheard phone calls about struggles with bills.
He didn’t understand at the time, but as he grew older things became clear. He pushed himself further, making sure he didn’t waste his mother’s sacrifice to buy him cleats and other sports equipment.
“She’s a huge inspiration to me,” Wirfs said. “She puts all her effort and time into me and my sister. I wouldn’t be here without her at all. She’s definitely the person that influenced me the most. That’s who I look up to.
“It made me work that much harder. ... I wanted to do the best I could in those sports, kind of for her.”
Sarah Wirfs said her goal was simple. She didn’t make a big deal out of sports, but stressed being a good teammate, a good person and having fun. Baseball was her favorite of his activities and she recalls his middle school home run at a local park that landed in the water of a nearby pool.
“He wanted to play. That’s all,” said Sarah Wirfs. “That’s all. It didn’t matter what was going on. He just wanted to play. He wanted to be a part of it. I tried to make sure he could.”
Hard work plus natural ability
Wirfs wasn’t an instant success in high school. He didn’t play varsity football as a freshman. Wrestling was rough, going 10-27. Baseball provided a boost, playing in 36 varsity games and hitting .404 as a freshman.
Wirfs then made the move to varsity football in the fall of his sophomore year. He improved to 31 victories on the mat and was a contributor for the Mustangs track and baseball teams.
“It was more of keeping your nose to the grindstone and just working through it,” Wirfs said. “I think success comes from all the hard work.”
Sarah Wirfs recalled the turnaround. He was playing Friday nights in the fall. He was beating wrestlers who would have pinned him a year earlier. Her son was winning track meets and hitting with the best players in the Wamac. Then, the attention came from recruiters.
“All of a sudden everything was going well,” she said. “He was really starting to excel in things.”
All the dedication paid dividends with a spectacular senior year. Wirfs helped Mount Vernon to a second straight trip to the state football semifinals in the hallowed UNI-Dome. In a rare feat, Wirfs was designated captain of the Class 2A all-state team by the Iowa Newspaper Association.
Wirfs was a pillar of the Mustangs offensive line. He also played defensive tackle, tallying 35 total tackles and 29 solo stops. Wirfs had 14 solo tackles for loss and three sacks.
“The good and bad for us is we had to play him both ways,” Pedersen said. “The good is we had such a big kid out there doing some amazing things. The bad thing is you play that many plays a game it’s hard to go hard all the time. It will be exciting to see him at the collegiate level where he’ll only have to play half the snaps.”
He also possessed a knack for the spectacular his senior season. Wirfs demonstrated his athleticism with three touchdowns in his career. He intercepted a pass and returned it for a 16-yard touchdown against Anamosa.
Even that paled in comparison to his postseason heroics against Williamsburg. With the Raiders rallying in the state quarterfinals, Wirfs blocked a punt, scooped it and ran 20 yards for a TD. The play is a prime example of how he could take over a game.
“I think it was a huge point in time where he basically said I’m going to take this thing over,” Pedersen said. “He had that ability to do it.”
Meet Athlete of the Year Tristan Wirfs
Wirfs credits Pedersen for his development into an NCAA Division I football prospect.
“I wouldn’t be playing at Iowa if it wasn’t for him,” Wirfs said. “He pushed me like no other. He told me if I did something bad. He told me if I did something good. Sometimes he knew I could do it better. He pushed me on the field and in the weight room.”
Wirfs was invited to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, featuring the nation’s best senior football players. The confidence that was so crucial in his improvement his sophomore year was dissipating.
He was honored by the nomination but found himself surrounded by D-I talent from football hotbeds like Florida and California. They had 10 times the scholarship offers and he questioned why he was there with just two.
“Once we started practice, I started holding my own,” Wirfs said. “I wasn’t getting thrown around like I thought. I proved myself a little bit. I could hang with those guys.”
A teammate. A competitor.
His appearance in the All-American game came in the middle of wrestling season. It was a season that almost wasn’t.
Wirfs faced a dilemma in the late fall. He had to choose between shedding more than 30 pounds to certify for the 285-pound limit or maintain his size for football. The choice weighed on him and people bombarded him with questions about it.
“That was the toughest decision,” said Wirfs, who had a career record of 98-56. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to let the wrestling coaches down. I didn’t want to let the Iowa coaches down.”
His friends on the wrestling team, including Jack Cochrane, Justin Light and Tony Garcia, said it wasn’t the same without him there and he finally decided to do it.
“I knew it would be extremely hard,” said Wirfs, a state qualifier as a junior and senior. “I just decided to do it.”
Mount Vernon wrestling assistant Aaron Truitt encouraged him to return to the team, offering to lose weight and work out with Wirfs. Truitt said he would respect Wirfs’ decision, but noted the endeavor would prepare him for the future demands of Hawkeyes football.
“From the second he committed to wrestling this year, he never wavered at all,” Truitt said. “Once he found out how hard it was to lose the weight, watch your diet and work out extra, it would have been easy for him to say it wasn’t worth it. He was 100 percent committed to it.”
Wirfs finished the season 21-3 and claimed the 2A heavyweight state title. He defeated Atlantic’s John McConkey, 3-1, in the finals, avenging a loss that kept him from the state podium as a junior.
“We thought that ending was possible,” Truitt said. “To see that come to fruition and see him actually win the state title was awesome.”
Video: Tristan Wirfs' 2017 wrestling state title
Wirfs leaves a huge void with his graduation. His shoes will be hard to fill in athletics, but so will his impact on the community.
“The kids really looked up to him,” Pedersen said. “I have an eighth-grader I taught in health class and he said he wants to be the next Tristan Wirfs. We’ve got kids talking about that all the time. He was the real deal, the whole package.
“We were extremely proud to have him on our football team. Can’t wait to see what he can accomplish at the next level.”
It will likely be something big. Very big.
First-place votes in parentheses.
|1||Tristan Wirfs||Mount Vernon||60 (9)|
|2||Oliver Martin||Iowa City West||54 (4)|
|3||Connor McCaffery||Iowa City West||28|
|4||Jared Brinkman||Iowa City Regina||26|
|5||Jo Jo Frost||Center Point-Urbana||11|
Others receiving votes (alphabetic order): Jack Cochrane (Mount Vernon), Josh Gerke (Cedar Rapids Xavier), Jiung Jung (Iowa City West), Devontae Lane (Iowa City West), Bryce Schulte (Cedar Rapids Xavier), Jovonte Squiers (Lone Tree)
Others nominated (alphabetic order): Matt Berst (Cedar Rapids Kennedy), Andrew Blakely (Springville), Owen Carstensen (Marion), Matthew Culver (Cedar Rapids Jefferson), Graeson Dall (Solon), Drew Dostal (Cedar Rapids Washington), Nick Duehr (Cedar Rapids Kennedy), Baylor Fish (Marion), Joe Hoff (Iowa City High), Matt Lorenz (Cedar Rapids Prairie), Alex Martens (Midland), Joe Meyer (Cedar Rapids Prairie), Jace Moore (Clayton Ridge), Ryan Murphy (Linn-Mar), Tavian Rashed (Cedar Rapids Jefferson), Max Smith Drahos (Cedar Rapids Prairie), Robby Sweers (Clayton Ridge), Mitch Wiese (Marion)