Tristan Wirfs grew up smiling, and Mount Vernon smiled back
IOWA CITY — Recess is the best part of the school day for most kids.
For a few minutes, you don’t have to study math, science, language arts or any of those other boring things. You can get outside, hit the playground, release some energy and have fun with your buddies.
Unless you were Tristan Wirfs. He had a lot of friends growing up in Mount Vernon he didn’t always get to play with at recess.
It wasn’t a punishment. If you talk to those who know him best, Wirfs was, and is, as kind-hearted a guy as you’ll come across.
This was a safety issue, because he was just so much bigger than everyone else.
“Yeah, the teachers told me that sometimes I’d have to sit out and everything,” the University of Iowa sophomore tackle said. “They’d always tell me that I didn’t know my own strength. You know, just typical stuff a teacher tells a big kid when he’s playing with littler kids. I was just trying to have fun with my buddies.”
That was said with a smile. It’s rare when Wirfs doesn’t wear one.
A gentle giant
Gentle giant fits here. By most accounts, he’s 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds of teddy bear.
“It has been like that since day one,” his mother, Sarah Wirfs, said. “As the mom, you are always like ‘Smile’ when you’re taking pictures. ‘Smile for the camera, Tristan.’ He was always happy to do that. I did not have to coax him much, ever. That smile always came.”
Which brings up a conundrum. It’s hard, pretty much impossible to play at a high level when you’re nice, especially on the offensive line.
Football is not a nice game. You’ve got to have a whole bunch of snarl, and it can be difficult when it’s not in your nature.
“It’s kind of funny,” Tristan said. “My mom doesn’t know a lot about football. I mean, she loves watching and stuff. But she’d always say I had to flip that switch, to get mean during a game. I’d be like ‘Yeah, I know, mom. I know.’”
“He has always been competitive, but never in a mean way,” Sarah Wirfs said. “So we’re like ‘It’s OK to be mean now. It’s time to let it out.’ I would always tell him he had to find a way to flip the switch if he was out on the wrestling mat or on the line in football. It has become a lot more apparent at the college level.”
Community is family
Sarah Wirfs is a single mom of two. The family, which includes Tristan’s sister, Kaylia, a junior at Mount Vernon High School, lived in a trailer park outside of town for awhile before moving to a house in Mount Vernon when Tristan was 5.
Sarah has worked hard over the years to afford her children opportunities to be involved in whatever activity they wished to participate.
“Being a single mom was never the plan,” she said. “I always told my kids they would have everything they needed, but probably not everything they wanted.”
The axiom that it takes a village to raise a child sure is true in this case. Sarah has a tight-knit extended family that has lended invaluable help, with Tristan listing his uncle, Rich, as a very important male role model in his life.
So were all of his friends’ dads growing up, guys who would go out and have a game of baseball catch with him from time to time. And then there were his teachers and coaches at Mount Vernon High School.
“It all starts at home with his mom and sister. They do an amazing job of putting the family first,” said Mount Vernon football coach Lance Pederson. “She really sacrifices hard for both of her kids, does a great job. I think her extended family and the community both kind of filled in the gaps and have done a great job of rallying around Tristan and that entire family. That’s really exciting to see. Everybody feels like they have a hand in it, and everybody is excited to see what Tristan has accomplished.”
What he accomplished in high school were all-state honors in football and a state championship in wrestling. He won state track and field and Drake Relays titles in the throwing events.
The U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant then became the first true freshman in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20 years at Iowa to start at a tackle position last season. He has 10 more starts under his belt this season, the 11th coming Saturday when Iowa plays at Illinois.
“Really tough for a first-year player to get thrown in at any position, especially the offensive line,” Ferentz said. “We’re playing Big Ten teams now, so we have a lot of clips from a year ago when you look at our cut-ups, and he’s a more confident player. He’s more technique proficient now. Last year, I’m not sure he understood totally what he was supposed to be doing. He might know his assignment, but he probably had no idea what his neighbor was doing, that type of thing.”
“I was forced to learn,” Wirfs said. “I didn’t have that year to redshirt, didn’t have that year to kind of hang back and slowly learn. I was kind of thrown to the wolves.”
A big future
Pederson has been to some Iowa practices and watches each game, though he tends to fixate on what Wirfs does each play. He, too, sees the added confidence in his protege’s play this season, sees that Wirfs is working better with right guard Cole Banwart.
“Tristan is a humble, great young man, and you want to see kids like that succeed,” he said.
Iowa has a history of producing offensive linemen that excel at the NFL level. There’s Robert Gallery, Eric Steinbach, Brandon Scherff, the list goes on and on.
It’s a long, long way to that point here, but, you don’t have to squint to see Wirfs has that sort of potential.
“He’s playing well for us,” Ferentz said. “He’s got a chance to be a really good football player here before his career is over.”
“Every time they come out of that tunnel at Kinnick Stadium, I start to cry,” Sarah Wirfs said. “I can’t help it. It’s just that it’s great to see him be able to live his dream.”
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