MOUNT VERNON — At the moment, Tristan Wirfs is hanging upside down in his backyard. He’s also wearing a white T-shirt with a pair of cats ironed onto his left pec.
It’s as summer as summer gets. Heat, humidity and a big, bright sun.
The Wirfses live right on Highway 1. If you’ve driven through Mount Vernon, you’ve driven past their split level, kind of up by the train tracks on the north side of town.
Their backyard came with a set of Olympic rings. Sarah Wirfs, Tristan’s mom, had no idea where they came from. Her son, who’ll be a three-year starting offensive tackle for the Iowa football team this fall, and his 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame knew they would hold.
Some sweat started to cover the cats on Tristan’s T-shirt. He did straighten his legs and hold the pose, this 6-5, 320-pound man. The judges would’ve given him a 9.0. This is where the super power of being able to hang clean 450 pounds comes in handy. Four times. Wirfs did that in the Iowa weight room in March.
When you’re a kid growing up and you love baseball, you start to develop an eye for fences. Every kid wants to see their home runs go over a fence.
The Wirfs’ backyard is fenced. There are two baseball fields just behind the Wirfs’ backyard. They also come with fences. Sam Moore, one of Tristan’s Mount Vernon High classmates, built his own Wiffle ball field. It also had a fence. Well, it had a hardware store with a roof and that had to be the fence for the kid hanging upside down right now.
Home runs are a big thing for Tristan Wirfs.
He’s now talking about his love of baseball bats. He bought a three-pack of aluminum bats. Sarah reminds him they were $120 a shot.
Tristan didn’t hear that part. Right now, he’s holding one of those bats. It’s not really there, but Tristan might not be, either. He’s in a trance.
“I loved bats, I loved everything about hitting,” Wirfs said.
Now, he’s smiling and talking and clearly in his own world.
“I loved pine tar, I’d have it everywhere,” Wirfs said. “And then I’d pour talc everywhere, all over my gloves.”
Wirfs really isn’t at the plate, except he totally is. The pitch comes in and the swing is glory, a slight downward chop that’s designed to line drive baseballs on long trips around Mount Vernon.
There’s no “ting,” that sound you get from an aluminum bat hitting a baseball, but Wirfs hears it. That ball is outta here.
“I always loved it when you couldn’t even feel the ball on the bat,” he said, smiling wide with teeth so bright they could lead you through a coal mine without a lantern. “That’s when you knew you really got it.”
Wirfs flips the imaginary bat and starts a home-run trot.
There will be questions about meanness, but this is a story mostly about imaginary home runs in the backyard.
The Gazette took a tour around Mount Vernon in mid-July with Sarah and Tristan Wirfs. There was an interview and along with that scenes from around what essentially is the 1 square mile where Wirfs grew up.
This is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.
Welcome to Mount Vernon
When you live on Highway 1, pulling out of the driveway isn’t automatic. First, it’s usually busy. Second, if a train passes through in the morning, you can’t even get out of the driveway. (And yes, the Wirfses are so used to the train they don’t hear it anymore.)
“I almost got hit this morning,” said Sarah, a lifelong Mount Vernon resident with a stop in Hillsboro, Ore., when her father had a lumber business. “I was pulling out and there was a car driving at the same rate and it was behind the tree.”
Sarah’s daughter, Kaylia, 17, was dinged once.
“She was backing out and got hit by a truck. Local guy. We knew him,” Sarah said. “When I came out, he realized who we were and calmed down a little bit.”
Tristan is driving the white Nissan Rogue. Before the Rogue, Sarah had a Ford Focus with 170,000 miles on it. Tristan bought her a UI packet of stuff that included a “UI Mom” sticker.” She kept it for four years so she could put it on the new car.
It’s KRNA on the radio and, really unbelievably, it’s Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'.”
“I’ve never had a problem.”
Big Tristan hits dingers
Tristan’s imaginary baseball didn’t land at Davis Park, a one-minute drive from the Wirfs’ (took longer to get out of the driveway). He hit a ton of real baseballs around this yard.
There’s a broken solar panel on the yellow shed outside of the left field fence. Tristan wondered if it’d still be there.
Yes, he did that.
“After I hit it, we just took off. Yeah, we were scared, I just broke it. We got all of our stuff and we just ran,” Wirfs said. “I was hoping it was still there so you guys could see it.”
He brushed this athletic feat off like a stray Cocoa Pebble. “It’s only 190 over there.”
Yeah, except Tristan was 11. Fences are fixed in baseball. Power isn’t.
Beyond the 190-foot fence at the baseball field sits a) a parking lot, b) a window store, c) a mirror factory d) a swimming pool or e) all of the above? It’s the swimming pool and it’s maybe 250 or 260 feet out.
Yes, 11- or 12- or 13-year-old Tristan sank a few in the Mount Vernon municipal pool. Kaylia, who’s going into her senior year at Mount Vernon High, is a lifeguard there. She’s probably safe now that Tristan is in Iowa City.
“A guy I went to school with was the Mount Vernon park and rec guy for a while (Matt Siders),” Sarah said. “Tristan, a couple of times, hit a baseball into the pool while the pool was open. He’s like, ‘Your son is hitting baseballs into my pool.’”
With people in it?
“Yep,” Sarah said.
“What year was it when I first did that?” Tristan asked. “We had a game here and I hit a ball into the pool.”
“Were you 11?” Sarah asked.
“I think that’s right,” he said.
Sports came naturally ... for the most part
Sports always have been a thing for Tristan Wirfs. The term “natural” seems trite, but Wirfs is writing a very different story than a lot of people.
He’d go to the baseball fields in his backyard and for hours he threw baseballs up to himself to hit. Wirfs was going to find his way to sports.
“I think it was first grade, whenever I started playing T-ball, when my friends started doing it,” Wirfs said. “When you’re a kid, you do soccer and T-ball. That’s just what kids do. I started getting older and my friends were doing wrestling and track and all this other stuff. I’m like, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’ And then I was like pretty good at them.
“They came pretty easily, so I thought, ‘All right.’ Once I got through elementary school, I thought, ‘Yeah, I like doing sports.’”
At 6-5, you probably think Wirfs was a basketball player. Well, he was for one year, in eighth grade, when kids could do wrestling and basketball.
Notice you don’t hear a lot about Tristan Wirfs and basketball.
“I can play, I just can’t shoot. I can do everything else. I can dribble. I can spin a ball on all five of my fingers,” he said, “I just can’t shoot, really.”
Tristan Wirfs played B-team hoops with his friend Jamie Parker in eighth grade. Their game was free-form. Tristan didn’t know there were plays in basketball and went out just to be able to play a sport with his friend.
“He’d tell me to go out to the 3-point line and he’d pass it out to me,” Wirfs said. “I shot like seven times and I never made one, but he always made sure I tried. We pretty much did our thing on B team. We were running around and trying to get each other as many points as we could.
“But yeah, they asked me to be on A team and I said I didn’t even know basketball had plays. Everyone is holding up their fingers, I just didn’t know what that was.”
Basketball ended for Wirfs in a B game against Independence.
“This little kid did a pump fake and I jumped up to block it and he ran right through my legs,” Wirfs said.
You know Wirfs was a heavyweight state champion during his senior season in 2017. Wirfs’ wrestling story began at the sitters when he was really little. Bill Thomsen was a coach and teacher at Mount Vernon for 30-some years. He and his wife, Lori, watched Tristan and Kaylia along with the Light children.
The Lights, of course, are wrestling royalty in Lisbon and Mount Vernon. Tristan and Justin Light hung out while at the Thomsens. Sarah and Tristan often ran into Vance Light, Justin’s dad and Mount Vernon’s head wrestling coach.
Tristan ended up wrestling because that’s what his friends did.
“Pretty much I was along for the ride,” he said. “Vance always said I was going to be his heavyweight.”
“Oh my gosh, Vance said that since you were 7 years old,” Sarah said.
Being a Wirfs also kicked in here. Not many families have pickup wrestling. The Wirfses did.
“Our family was big at pickup wrestling, every family get-together,” Sarah said. “My brother ... before my dad was sick and passed away, he jumped in. I think Tristan was around 5 or 6 or 7, but at our relative’s house, we used to go to my aunt’s house in Des Moines, all my cousins wrestled.
“My cousin John. He was a wrestler and a four-sport athlete all through high school. My cousins Stephen and John and Dominic, they all wrestled, so there was always a pile. And the dads would always get in there. Uncle Dave and Grandpa Ron. Everybody did it.”
Wrestling is an unforgiving sport for newbies. It’s all mat burns, takedown dummy and bloody noses from brutal crossfaces (important to note Tristan has never had a bloody nose).
“I was terrible. I was bad,” Tristan said. “When I was in elementary school going to those little kid tournaments, I maybe went to four total. I’d just go with my friends and their dads would take me. I’d be pinned and I’d be laughing. I don’t know why. All through elementary school, I’d be getting pinned and I’d be laughing.”
Freshman year wrestling was where Wirfs learned to deal with athletic adversity. (He was hitting baseballs where no one else could at age 11, so you kind of really have to look for the adversity.)
He was big and awkward and ... “I think if you look at pictures of me during my freshman wrestling season, I looked funny,” Wirfs said. “If you look at this picture (celebrating his state title on the mat as a senior) compared to one from my freshman year wrestling? Oh my gosh.”
Athletes remember the lessons and who taught them. When former Iowa and NFL defensive lineman Karl Klug was a 220-pound freshman defensive tackle at Iowa, offensive lineman Wes Aeschilman, a 6-8 monster from Davis County, picked him up and carried him down field.
Those kinds of lessons.
“Josh Cannon my freshman year,” Wirfs said.
“He was a senior 220-pounder (eventually wrestled at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville),” Wirfs said. “He would just whup me, you know?”
Voice trailed a little here. Athletes don’t totally dig looking back at the hard lessons.
“I kind of felt bad for him, because I had to have been a terrible partner, because I had no idea what to do, like how to do a drill match, stuff like that,” Wirfs said. “I’d kind of just jump around out there and he’d get mad at me and take it out on me. He’d do a move that just killed and I’d be like, ‘OK, I’m sorry.’”
But then ...
“It was funny,” Wirfs said. “He came back my senior year and wrestled with me and I just whupped him. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m a little heavier now.’”
“He learned some stuff,” Sarah said.
Freshman year was a disaster. Wirfs could’ve easily declared himself a football player and never put on the headgear again.
“I remember how many lights there are in the Linn-Mar gym,” Wirfs said.
His youth coach suggested he not go to the vaunted Clinton tournament.
“There’s always a lot of good wrestlers,” Wirfs said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, you don’t need to come to this one.’ He knew it’d just be bad if I went. I was like, ‘All right.’ I was kind of happy because I didn’t have to wake up at 4:30 in the morning on a Saturday and be there until 8 o’clock at night.
“I really wanted to stop wrestling after my freshman year, I went 10-31, I think. Just terrible. And (assistant coach Aaron) Truitt, he’d say, ‘It’s not about the right now, it’s about February 2017.’ I stuck with it. I think I flipped my record, my sophomore year.”
Former Iowa defensive lineman, New York Jet and Iowa prep wrestling champion Matt Kroul helped out with Wirfs in the wrestling room.
“Umm, it wasn’t too bad,” Wirfs said. “I’d beat him sometimes, he’d beat me sometimes. He came back to Mount Vernon to talk to us when he was with the Jets. He was like 310 or something. I was in sixth or seventh grade, and, yeah, that was cool. He was 250-something when he would come and wrestle with me.”
With the Thomsens being a short walk from the pool, swimming was a big deal for the Wirfses. When Tristan was 5 ... “I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to do that, I’m a good swimmer.”
And he was. Swimmers had to be able to go 25 meters to make the team.
“I could smoke that,” he said. He swam until the summer before seventh grade, when travel baseball started to take hold. But after that, he’d still make sure his mom and coaches knew he was ready to go if they needed him.
“I’d be watching Kaylia and they would need someone,” Tristan said. “And I’d say, ‘I have my Speedo on, just in case, you know.’”
And there always was baseball.
“I love baseball,” Tristan said. “Baseball was my No. 1 sport for a long time. I loved it.”
It was Sarah’s favorite, too.
“I don’t know what it was, I just loved it,” she said. “I loved him at first base and then watching him hit and then they threw him in to pitch and I’d hide behind the bleachers or something like that. Don’t make eye contact. I didn’t want to make him nervous.”
That’s being mom, right?
Football was in there for Wirfs, but it was mostly a recess thing. Pickup football didn’t hit home for the Mount Vernon bike gang (kids’ bikes, you know, even in Mount Vernon and even across Highway 1).
“I remember waking up and riding my bike over to swim team practice in the morning,” Tristan said. “We had our home phone right up there (points to the spot on the wall where we all once had phones).
“I remembered all of my friends’ home phone numbers. I would call people. I remember my buddy Tony (Garcia) and his mom’s cellphone number and I called, ‘Is Tony home or what’s he doing?’ Stuff like that. We honestly spent most of our days at the pool.
“So, say we had baseball practice in the morning or something, or we’re at a baseball tournament on a Saturday. He stayed at my house the night before. We’d go to the pool all day long. Come back here around 5:30, because they’d have an hour break before night swim. We’d eat some cheese sticks or whatever and then go back to the pool until 8:30 and then we’d play our baseball tournament the next morning and then do it all over again, except I’d stay at his house. That was pretty much what my summers were.
“And, you know, it was a lot of fun. I loved it.”
D-I calls: 'I thought, Oh ... my ... gosh ...'
Football finally caught up with Tristan on a baseball field.
Wirfs was 6-5 and 325 as a senior at Mount Vernon. Football always was going to find him.
Baseball game at Williamsburg in summer of 2016. A call from then-Iowa State quarterbacks coach Todd Sturdy. Football had found Tristan Wirfs.
“After the game, I saw Mom in the stands and she was still here,” he said. “I thought, that’s weird, because usually she just takes off.”
Tristan then took a quick look at his phone. He saw that Mount Vernon football coach Lance Pedersen texted six times and called a whole bunch more.
“Oh my God, I thought I was in trouble or something. What did I do?” Tristan said. “I called him back and he was like, ‘Call this number I just texted to you.’
“It was Coach Sturdy. He didn’t answer, so I called Coach Pedersen back, ‘He didn’t answer. What should I do?’
“He said, ‘That’s the QB coach at Iowa State. Call him.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
“‘Call him back.’
“So, I called him again and he answered. We were just talking a little bit, and he said, ‘We like your film and we want to offer you a scholarship.’ I was like, ‘What? All right.’ I was pretty excited about that.”
Sarah stuck around because Coach Pedersen had already called her.
“‘Where are you?’ he asked.
“I was on my way,” Sarah said. “He said, ‘Have Tristan call this number, because he’s going to offer you a scholarship.’ I was like, ‘What?’
“It was just ... I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Oh ... my ... gosh.’”
Two weeks later, Wirfs was in Iowa City for the Hawkeyes’ high school camp.
Now, the Wirfses weren’t life-longers with the Hawkeyes. They weren’t really even Hawkeye “bumblebees.” They had a few Hawkeye items. Sarah said she thought she had been to one game in her life with her brother. This, of course, was before having a son on the team.
If the Hawkeyes were on TV, the Wirfses had them on, kind of in the background.
“I didn’t have any preconceived, ‘Oh yes, he’s going to be a Hawkeye,’” Sarah said.
Wirfs remembered being measured at 6-3 during camp. He really is 6-5.
“You’ve got to stand with your knees together,” he said. “My thighs are really big and I was sort of slouching. I tried to press them together and that made me slouch.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz happened to be out with the offensive linemen that day. (That probably was not an accident and that’s probably where Ferentz is every prep camp.)
“I remember talking to Coach Ferentz,” Wirfs said. “We were doing one-on-ones. I was like, ‘I’m talking to Coach Kirk Ferentz.’ I’d never met him before.”
Wirfs knew what was on the line and could feel the scrutiny.
“It was a lot different than what I was used to at the time,” Wirfs said. “It felt like every little movement you were making, no matter what it was, you felt like someone was looking at you. I was just used to going out and playing with my buddies. I didn’t have any of my friends there. I felt like I was just by myself. I had a good time, but it was a lot different.”
Ferentz said hello during one-on-ones. How were one-on-ones going for Tristan that day? “One-on-ones were fun.”
After camp was over, coaches asked if a few attendees could stay back. Solon tight end Jake Coons and Wirfs were among those asked to hang.
They walked up to the All-American room in the Hansen Center and waited for a one-on-one with Ferentz.
“I had a feeling, but I didn’t want to assume anything,” Wirfs said. “I thought, ‘This might be what’s happening.’ We were the last ones. Guys were going in and guys were coming out. Some were smiling and some weren’t. What’s happening?”
Then, Wirfs smiled.
“We’re sitting down with Coach Ferentz and we’re talking to him and he’s says, ‘Scholarships aren’t given, they’re earned. You earned a scholarship to play football at the University of Iowa,’” Wirfs said. “I was like, ‘Whoa.’
“We were leaving and I called Coach Pedersen. We were turning onto Mormon Trek (Road). I called Coach Pedersen and said, ‘Coach, they offered me a scholarship. When can I commit?’ He said, ‘just calm down. We’re just going to wait and see.’”
Wirfs did have a nagging feeling about not checking out any other schools. He knew Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi from his days as a Metro Youth Football player in Cedar Rapids. Lombardi and Wirfs played for the Cedar Rapids Washington team.
“I was starting to get letters and all of that,” he said. “And then I thought, what else is out there? I’ve never really been anywhere else. We went to Michigan State in November (before they played in the Big Ten title game). I just hated it up there. Oh my gosh, it was terrible.
“I called Coach (Reese) Morgan after the Big Ten Championship Game and said, ‘Hey, I’m ready.’ I think that was good, too. I didn’t want to feel like I was wondering what else was out there. Yeah, I know it was only one other place, but just being able to go somewhere and get that out of my head was nice.”
Football always was going to find Tristan Wirfs.
'Wait until we get to practice, I'll show you'
Remember that trial by fire for wrestling? He didn’t have that with football.
“I didn’t have as many lessons in football as I did in wrestling. Football just came pretty naturally,” Wirfs said. “I think it probably would’ve been my sophomore year. That was my first year on the varsity. We were playing Marion and they had these two twins. They were defensive ends. I can’t remember their names. Oh my gosh, that was my first game. Being a sophomore, I thought those guys were pretty good. I was like ‘Wow, this is what it’s like.’ That was it, from then on ... I was all right.”
After sorting through 170-pound defensive linemen in Class 2A district football like bails of hay going over the bar at Solon Beef Days, Wirfs was invited to the 2016 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
This is where the elite showcase themselves for ... well, most of them have scholarships. It’s kind of a TV thing with all-star high school football players. The year Wirfs went, Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa also was there.
This was where maybe there would be a lesson.
“I was really nervous,” Wirfs said. “Do I belong? I’d never gone against guys like that. I’d never gone against someone else who’s 6-5, 290 and a freak. I’d never been around someone like that.
“So, I got down there and I was really kind of doubting myself. Then we got out to practice and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m doing just fine.’ I was kind of locked in.”
Wirfs only knew Epenesa and he’d only met him a few times.
“They welcomed me in like they knew me for years,” Wirfs said. “I kind of just kept to myself. I remember on the bus ride to practice one day, they were going around saying how many offers they had. I said, ‘Two.’ And then ‘How are you here with two offers?’
“I was like, ‘I don’t know. Wait until we get to practice, I’ll show you.’”
Size 17 wrestling shoes exist
Tristan mostly sleeps at his apartment in Iowa City these days. When he does come home, it’s the same bed he slept on as a kid and it rotated between him and Kaylia.
“It’s a little bed. My feet hang off the end,” he said. “I have a king-sized back in Iowa City.”
To be fair to the bed, Tristan fills the small bedroom up.
Here’s a little bit on how much he fills just about everything:
Sarah enlisted a small army of friends to look online for clothes and shoes that would fit him. Shirts were OK, but pants and shoes were gold doubloons.
“His legs are so long,” Sarah said. “I was getting frustrated and thought, ‘Where do all these basketball players get their clothes?’ Pants? Ugh. And then he could never have, you know all of the kids are wearing basketball shorts. They were like pre-pants on him. They were terrible.”
Wirfs’ shoes hit size 17 his junior year at Mount Vernon and have stayed 17s.
So, size 17 wrestling shoes? Yes, four pair, two Nikes and two Asics. Tristan didn’t have any for display. They were at his apartment in Iowa City, because he’d recently wrestled with O-lineman and teammate Kyler Schott. Schott is a former North Linn wrestler who put a hurting on Wirfs when they were younger, before Wirfs “knew some stuff.”
The other two pairs were donated to Mount Vernon wrestling. Light texted Sarah last fall and asked “Do you still have Tristan’s old wrestling shoes?”
Sarah did. The Mustangs found a big fella who stood 6-5 and wore size 15 or 16.
“We had four pair, so I gave them a couple pairs,” Sarah said. “So, we gave Vance two pair because they didn’t have any shoes to fit him.”
'It's an unbelievable gift'
Hell yes, Sarah was hoping for free college.
The 44-year-old is a single mother of two. She’s worked at the Target on Blairs Ferry Road in Cedar Rapids for 28 years. She’s a team leader there.
As you could imagine, there was a lot of running around, especially when you have to commute a half-hour — and back out of a driveway that leads into the busiest road in town — into Cedar Rapids.
Also, you’ve probably noticed, Sarah Wirfs is a single mother of two. The kids’ father has never been involved.
When Tristan played with the Washington team in Metro Youth Football, that came with three trips into Cedar Rapids for practice and then games on the weekend. Stacy English and Sandra and Dan Reed helped out a lot. They also had kids on the Washington team.
For Sarah, it was five days a week for work and then as many as four other trips to Cedar Rapids for Metro Youth Football.
This wasn’t easy.
Team leaders are team leaders because they come through. There are expectations and regular hours. About three or four years ago, Sarah moved to a department that took closing the store off her schedule. Before that, she had a regular closing night and worked every other weekend.
“I would open one weekend and then I would be off and then I would close one weekend and be off, so I had a regular closing night every week and then I had a day off during the week,” Sarah said. “Up until I moved to the back room four years ago, I had to close every week and one weekend a month.”
Even in a tightly-run corporate big box store, there’s community. You’ve figured out by now this isn’t a family that is going to sit around and whine. So when Sarah says glowing things about how her Target co-workers really helped find her time off, you’re seeing another gold doubloon. People can be gold doubloons sometimes.
“There’s no such thing as seniority, but I’ve worked very hard for them for a very long time,” she said. “There are five or six or seven people who’ve worked there longer than me and we’ve worked together the whole time. They have been really flexible. I did my closing night and everything I was supposed to do. With switching things around, my bosses, for the most part, were always really flexible.
“One wrestling season, I’m pretty sure I had every single weekend off in January and the first part of February.”
Sarah laughed like she got away with something and nobody noticed.
“It doesn’t always work that way, and I was really fortunate that Target was so flexible with me in the later years when kids would be in multiple things,” she said. “There were a couple of years where we had archery (Kaylia’s deal) and wrestling. They are the same season. I was trying to split my time. Work was ... work was unbelievably flexible.
“I don’t know that they would do that for everybody, but they did it for me and I’m thankful for that because it helped a ton.”
What did free college mean to the Wirfses?
“That was unbelievable,” Sarah said.
Tristan was only 17 at the time. He didn’t grasp what it meant. Now he does.
“Not really. I thought it was just cool,” he said. “Seeing all of these freshmen and sophomores getting offers on Twitter, you don’t really know what not having to pay for anything really means and how much of a benefit for the rest of your life pretty much.
“Then, once you do realize it, it’s wow. You’re not that much in debt right off the bat.”
The difference here is Sarah has the checkbook.
“I know how much college is, but everything else that they pay for ... it’s just a godsend that you don’t have to worry,” she said. “I don’t have to try to get him food. I really don’t have to buy him clothes. I don’t have to do anything anymore, basically. It takes care of everything.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do that. I’m trying to figure out what my daughter is going to do. She’ll probably go to Kirkwood and try and get two years. So, it’s just an unbelievable gift ...”
Her voice cracked a little. This is that big of a deal.
“ ... that he got to be able to do that and survive and not have to have a job of any kind, just be able to focus on school and football. It’s an unbelievable gift.”
Growing pains are real
Tristan’s early wrestling days were murder. He had a pretty great excuse.
Size 17 feet don’t happen overnight. Six-foot-five takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 17 years. And 325 pounds isn’t sneaking up on anyone.
From age 10 to around 17, Wirfs grew. And grew. And grew.
“I went through a lot of growth spurts,” he said.
The thing that was different for him was he could really feel it. Growing pains were a thing.
“I always thought I was sick, but it was just growing pains,” he said. “It would just come on like this (snap of fingers).”
His thighs were constantly on fire.
“You know when you get the flu and you feel achy?” he said. “It was that, just all the time.”
Sarah figured out the pattern that helped calm their fears, because who knows with that kind of pain?
“Two or three times a year that would happen and he would sleep for 14 or 15 hours straight,” she said.
“I always thought I was sick, but I’d never throw up or anything like that,” Tristan said.
“He would be just super tired and achy and sleepy,” Sarah said. “And then he was fine and then all of a sudden, he’d be taller and we’d be like, ‘What happened?’”
“I’d sleep and wake up and I’d just be sweating,” he said. “I thought. ‘I have to be sick or something’ and then about a month later, another mark on our wall.”
The marks on the wall are by the kitchen. They remain.
“I had doctors say that,” Sarah said. “People say there aren’t growing pains, but he said it’s probably that, but I rarely took him to the doctor. He would come home and go to sleep and then sleep until 9 the next morning or whenever and then he was fine. I didn’t take him to the doctor for that because I really didn’t think anything was wrong.”
“I’d come home and just go to bed,” he said.
This ties in to the next part.
'Middle school sucks for everyone'
First, can a kid get in trouble in Mount Vernon?
The answer, obviously, is yes. Still, when all of your friends are on your various sports teams and you hang out with them, their parents all get the same information. That limits the sneakiness.
“It’s funny you bring that up,” Sarah said. “If we were concerned about something, and I know Jan (Moore, kind of the team photographer for a lot of the youth teams during Tristan’s early days) and I would do this, she would call me and be like, ‘Are they at your house? Is this the story you got?’”
“I’d make up a story,” Tristan said.
“We were checking up on each other. His buddy Tony Garcia and his mom Stacy, we would do the same thing,” Sarah said. “‘Is this where they said they were going? Did you get that? OK, good.’”
So, two channels to watch here.
Everyone likes to go at the big kid, no?
“Yeah,” Tristan said. A very quick answer.
The other channel?
“Middle school sucks for everyone and everything,” Sarah said. “It’s just different levels of suckiness.”
Tristan won’t say he was picked on.
“They’d try to get a rise out of me and when I retaliated, I’d get in trouble and I’d be the bad guy,” he said.
“Every time,” Sarah said.
This was constant.
Before school, kids would have free time in the gym. Various balls would be out on the floor.
“There was one time where there were these kids and they wouldn’t leave me alone,” Wirfs said. “They were following me everywhere. They were throwing dodgeballs at me. I picked up a volleyball and I turned around ... I can throw a volleyball pretty hard.
“I whipped it at this kid and he just starts bawling. I get sent to the principal’s office. I’m like, ‘They were doing that to me for the past 10 minutes.’ It didn’t matter. I thought, ‘OK.’ Then, I had to sit in the principal’s office for however long. Stuff like that.”
In computer lab, a kid pulled a chair out from under him.
“I don’t know why someone would do that. I’m the biggest kid,” he said. “I went to sit down and he pulled the chair out from under me. I chased him down.”
They did this thing at Mount Vernon Middle School called the “Dead Leg.”
“You punch someone in the thigh as hard as you can. I started doing that with my knee,” Tristan said. “I’d grab my friends’ thighs and knee them. I did that to this kid and he couldn’t get off the ground. I get sent to the principal’s office.”
Sarah goes right back to those frustrating times.
“It was hard because it happened constantly,” she said. “I was always hard on him to make sure to be a good person and do the right thing. Don’t react, but it just got so old to not react. ‘They were doing this crap to me. I don’t want to not react.’
“I was in the principal’s office several times. ‘How come there’s no accountability for them doing it to him however many times?’ And then he finally reacts and here we are in the office again.
“After middle school, I was just like, ‘It’s not going to be much longer and we’ll be out,’” she said. “And then it changed dramatically in high school. I think we had one incident maybe his freshman year.”
The magic of maturity or Dead Legs? It didn’t matter.
“Everyone just kind of realized, ‘We’re not going to do that kind of stuff anymore,’” he said. “I think it was just everyone growing up a little bit. It was just me trying to get someone back for something they did to me. That was how I’d always get into trouble.”
Sarah put on the “Mama Bear” costume on this topic, but this fire is out.
Any trace of bitterness?
“Oh no,” Tristan said.
How does that not make a person bitter and mean?
“I just always have the philosophy, ‘Did you die? No? OK, it’s not that bad,’” Sarah said.
“Probably why I have a lot of these scars,” Tristan said.
This is still a story of joy, you guys. Give it a minute.
The master plan: A beard
This also is a football story. We haven’t been to a football field, so here we are at the Mount Vernon Middle School field.
This is where it all happened for Mount Vernon football, until a few years ago, when the Mustangs moved into Cornell College’s Ash Park Stadium for home games but for one game a year.
Sarah is a 1993 Mount Vernon grad. Then, the side hills were still open. For homecoming, the school would burn “MV” onto the side of the hill.
Wirfs, a 2017 graduate, scored a touchdown here. He helped the Mustangs seal a late victory against Williamsburg at Cornell. Wirfs blocked a punt late and returned it 20 yards for a TD. He was 6-5, 325 doing this. Here, he returned an interception 16 yards for a TD against Anamosa.
This is a football story, so we needed a football scene.
Even here, there’s more talk about baseball.
“Two home runs in one game at Cornell my freshman year,” Wirfs said with a laugh. “Probably still have the ball somewhere.”
He did want to play Major League Baseball. “I did. I wanted to go to MLB so bad for a long time.”
What was it about baseball? “I could just hit like crazy.”
Fun knocking the crap out of something like that?
“I loved it.” he said. “I’d just go out into my backyard and those fields and throw balls up to myself and hit them. All the time. I loved scooping wild throws at first.
“And the stretch,” Sarah said.
“Baseball is kind of cool,” Wirfs said. “When I was still playing in high school, kids would come to first base and just start talking to me. That was my favorite sport growing up.”
It’s too obvious to talk football at a football field.
Sarah suggests going to the site of a childhood landmark that is no longer standing. Everyone, let’s give Don Mar Lanes a moment of silence. It burned down in August 2016. That was where dances and activity nights would be held.
Axe fumes have been ruled out, but back in the day ...
Lisbon dances and activity nights at the bowling alley.
“That was the best,” Tristan said. “You’d put on as much cologne as you could. And tried to dress OK.”
Axe was preferred (dumb question).
“My one friend got this stuff called ‘Black,’” Tristan said. “That was what it was called. It was the best.”
“I think they got it at Rue 21 in the mall,” Sarah said.
“He got that stuff and I was like, ‘Give me some,’” Tristan said. “We’d go to the bowling alley and hang out and then we’d go into the dance. We thought we were so cool.”
“Yeah, the cologne was flowing,” Sarah said. “With my brother, it was always Drakkar and Polo.”
Ah, the classics.
Yes, Tristan is particular about the look. It doesn’t just happen. There’s probably a reason for today’s cat T-shirt.
The smile is amazingly white. He admits it hides an overbite and bottom teeth that Tristan says “aren’t very good.”
The master plan is to grow a beard that covers up everything. He’ll be 21 in January, so that might take a while.
“Grandpa Ron had a nice beard,” Tristan said, referencing Sarah’s father, who passed away from prostate cancer in 2007.
“Yeah, my dad had one,” she said.
“I’m hoping that gene kicks in there at some point,” he said.
The water is still and fuzzy at the quarry.
It really is a quarry. The rock walls are near the back, with shadows starting to hide them. It doesn’t smell horrible, but the water is, indeed, unswimmable.
“It’d be me and Sam Sam Kringlen,” Tristan said. “We’d try to find two quarters and then we’d walk there. He would go swimming in the quarry, which is disgusting, nasty water. There was this little island out in the middle and he’d always swim to it. I’m like, ‘I’m not going in there.’”
“I hated it when they came to the quarry,” Sarah said. “I was so paranoid. He was a great swimmer, but I was just so paranoid. The dock? This is brand new. The thing they had before was like this wide and 150 years old. How gross is this? Who would swim in this?”
If they could scramble up 50 cents, they could go fishing. The worms at the Acme Hardware store were 50 cents a pop.
“The night crawlers were 50 cents and I’d be ‘I don’t have 50 cents,’” Wirfs said.
They’d get a few poles in and it’d be bluegills and catfish. Today, a bloated catfish is near the shore, waiting to be part of the food chain.
“That’s a carp, mom,” Wirfs said. “No, that’s a catfish. A big one.”
Wirfs plays O-line with Coy Kirkpartrick, who’s an avid outdoorsman. When they go, Kirkpatrick serves as the outfitter. Spinning reels and baitcaster. All kinds of catfish bait and miles of lures.
Wirfs and Kirkpatrick were born on the same day, Jan. 24, 1999. They became friends during their chases for track and field gold in the shot put and discus (Wirfs won state titles in both events as a junior and senior).
So, the stop at the quarry kind of got everyone thinking a little bit about football.
Sarah said she heard AC/DC’s “Back in Black” on KRNA a few days ago.
Simple question: Are you looking forward to the season?
“That very first game, when we found out Tristan was going to go in and stuff, every time they start playing and you hear the drums and then the video pans to the locker room, I just start crying,” Sarah said. “I just get so overcome with emotion. Every ... single ... time.
“I don’t sit by Natalie (Kirkpatrick, Coy’s mom), we sit in the parents’ seats that we’re assigned. We were talking the other day, and she’s like, ‘Every single time it plays, I start crying.’ ‘Oh my God, me too.’
“They played that song the other day on KRNA and they started talking about that shot when Kirk first comes out of the locker room ... It’s just so crazy to see ... pride and a proud moment, you know? Such pride comes through. Who gets to live their dream, you know? Not that many people.
“And then my son, I just never thought that could happen. It never even dawned on me. He was just living life and doing the things that he enjoyed.”
There are times the picture-taking sessions — when they’re out for dinner and fans recognize them — run 20 minutes.
The Wirfses know it’s a good thing.
“People are excited, especially people from our hometown,” she said. “Not many people from your small town make it big like this, so they’re excited. Everyone has been such a big part of his life, they know him. They’ve all seen him grow up, so it’s exciting for them, too, because they know someone.”
Suddenly, two 12-year-old-ish fishing demons fly down the gravel trail on their bikes. They park, rip open a package of Eagle Claw hooks and are on the dock with the concentrations of a jeweler and an architect.
They didn’t even really notice the big dude from the Hawkeyes.
One of the bikes tumbled to the ground. Tristan went to pick it up.
“It’s fine,” one of the anglers turned and said. And then he turned back, scanning his line for any sign of life.
'I've never really been a mean person'
Tristan Wirfs didn’t pick being big. His size was something he had to learn to live with.
We’ve been over the sucky suckiness of middle school. This is a different notion. This is about how size works in sports. Wirfs figured it out early.
When Wirfs was in third grade, he found himself in a Saturday kids wrestling tournament at Mount Vernon. Wirfs’ size forced him to “wrestle up” in age group. Many of his competitors were two and sometimes three years older than he was.
Yes, that freaked out mom.
“Well, a little bit ...”
“He was always bigger than them.”
Tristan flashed to when this happened.
“This one scarred me,” he said.
“Yeah, big time,” Sarah said.
Tristan was wrestling with another Mount Vernon kid. He was bigger than all of them.
“I was just wrestling ...” Tristan began.
“And it was a Mount Vernon kid ...” Sarah said.
“I landed on him and I broke his ankle,” Tristan said.
He started another thought and then paused.
“That’s kind of when ...,” he said. “People always tell me I need to get mean and everything ...”
“That’s where the holding back started,” Sarah said.
“I was always holding back, because I heard it and I felt it snap and everything,” Wirfs said. “It was nasty.”
So, this piggybacks with the “Does Tristan play mean enough?” This topic gained steam this spring.
Yes, the coaches absolutely loved Wirfs’ 450-pound hang clean lift (four times this spring, the viral video is out there), but ...
“What he did was pretty impressive. You can’t teach that,” Ferentz said this spring. “But the next challenge is to do that on the field. The next step is, can he take that next step and play better? Just really be precise, just nail every play.”
No one on Iowa’s staff has said Wirfs needs to be “meaner.” Coming out of last season, offensive line coach Tim Polasek said this:
“We’re waiting for him to kind of rip open a Superman suit and run out there. I don’t think he’s quite pushed it through and become the dominant guy he really can (be) in the run game.”
Note, you don’t see the word “mean.” Somehow, in the game of telephone between coaches, media and fans, this has been interpreted as “Tristan isn’t mean enough.”
“That’s what everybody says,” Wirfs said. “They say I have to get a mean streak going and all of this. I don’t know. I was talking to Carmen (Tebbe Priebe, a Ph.D. with UI sports psychology and UI counseling services) about that the past two months, like all through spring ball. That’s what we would talk about. That’s what the coaches wanted and stuff.
“I’ve never really been a mean person.”
“It’s hard to be mean when you’re not a mean person,” Sarah Wirfs said. “It’s hard to get to that. You can be aggressive and strong and tough.”
The coaches don’t use that word “mean.” They do use the word “finish,” and that’s in an O-lineman’s job description and Tristan has totally signed up for and is here for that.
“I think spring ball, from what I did, was better. I was finishing guys more, I wasn’t letting up,” Tristan said.
Does “mean” simply equal “finishing blocks?”
“I think so. That’s what I was trying to do,” he said. “I thought, ‘I can do this without that.’”
Of course, it’s hard to do that to your teammates. And it’s impossible to do that to your teammate A.J. Epenesa, who’s been Tristan’s ... hmm, what might be the term? ... let’s just go with “drill partner.” They’ve locked up hundreds of times and have a whole camp ahead of them.
“It’s hard to do anything against A.J.,” Wirfs said. “It’s definitely harder to do that to your teammates.”
Tristan Wirfs isn’t thinking about cat T-shirts during games and practice. What does the difference between “mean” and “competitive” even look like?
“I’ve always been a competitive person. I hate losing. I wanted to be the best,” Tristan said. “Yeah, I think there’s a difference between being mean and competitive.”
Over the fence again
The last stop is where the tennis courts once stood. Next to those are the shot put and discus rings.
You’re probably wondering how that might’ve worked, tennis courts near a discus throwing ring. Well, it worked until Mount Vernon had a thrower who could fling a discus 200 feet if, like baseball, he hit one that felt effortless.
So, everyone, let’s just take a minute to say thanks that there once was a scuff that measured 202 feet in the middle of the tennis courts and not a chalk outline.
“They just tore down the old tennis court,” Sarah said. “When he was throwing, he’d always throw it over the fence and they would throw a fit. The girls were practicing.”
“I had to wait until tennis was done practicing before I could throw,” Tristan said.
From baseballs in the swimming pool to discs on the tennis court, the man clearly was a menace.
One did get away from him. It freaked him out.
“They’re like, ‘You have to give us a heads up before it’s your turn,’” he said. “One time, I forgot. I threw it and it hit the top of the fence.”
It’s safer by the shot put ring.
Tristan set a stake at 70 feet and tried for hours to reach it. He got close in practice, but leveled out at 66-3 1/4 in competition.
Wirfs loved the instant feedback in track. You aren’t this, not yet. You are this, this is where you’re at. Mount Vernon had just one shot put ring, so Tristan learned that you had to make the most of your shot.
“You can get into slumps,” he said. “I’d get into slumps and always thought if I tried harder for more power, it’ll go farther. But then it goes shorter, and it could be the smallest thing.”
There are levels of divots at the Mount Vernon shot ring. There are some at 40 feet, some at 50 and then there are Tristan’s, which creep ever so closely to that tennis fence.
“Last spring break, I picked up a shot,” Wirfs said. “They were throwing in the gym. So, I threw it and all of my fingers popped. You have to ease back into that. I threw it and all of them popped. I was like, ‘Wow and ow.’ It was like jamming my fingers. That’s what it felt like.
“I loved it.”
A story of joy
The Wirfses have played host for a lot of family Christmases, though the family does rotate.
“That was the big joy, being around family, getting together with all of the kids,” Sarah said. “The kids always loved it when we could get together. Before my dad died, we’d go out to eat almost weekly. Just being around family and getting to do things together.”
The joy didn’t have to be big or some super trip with planes, trains and automobiles. One trip that jumped out to Sarah was to Pikes Peak on the Mississippi River bluffs in northeast Iowa.
“We piled into my brother’s Expedition, you know, with the cousins,” she said. “There were four of them, Mitch, Kennedy, Tristan and Kaylia. My mom and my sisters and my sister-in-law and we just headed up there and stopped at Gunder Burger and ate and hiked.
“Just doing things as a family was a big joy and we loved going to all of the kids’ sports things. That was a big thing. Just being around that type of atmosphere. Swim meets and baseball games and my softball games. My nephew’s baseball and football games. Mitchell (uncle Rich Wirfs’ son) played football and baseball, too.
“That’s the joy.”
The Wirfses have been in their current home for about 15 years. Before that, there was a trailer court. Tristan doesn’t really remember the trailer court.
He remembered a nightmare he had there.
“My room was at the end of the hallway,” he said. “I must’ve been sleepwalking or something, but I walked to the kitchen and then going back to get to my room, I saw these huge eyes at the end of the hallway. I barricaded myself in the kitchen with chairs. I slept in the kitchen that night.”
This still is a story about joy. You can be powered by joy instead of mean, even in football. That might be Tristan Wirfs’ Kung Fu. He’s having a blast beating your brains in, leaving competitor’s NFL highlight films wanting while filling up his own. The joy he takes from winning a competition always will be a much healthier road than going in with “mean” and walking away with that raw and red perspective.
Just minutes earlier, before the trailer park nightmare, the Wirfses drove by the Thomsens where Tristan spent his daycare years under the Thomsens’ care.
The pool is just a few blocks away, so it was a destination for Tristan and Kaylia. So was this little yard area just in the street. Towns like Mount Vernon sometimes have quirkiness in their streets. In front of the Thomsens, there’s a patch of green, with bushes and grass, surrounded by the streets.
It used to be where a city utility garage stood. At one point, it stored sand. Now? It’s gone and there’s this green patch.
“It’s called ‘The Triangle,’” Bill Thomsen said. “The kids ask all of the time if they can go to ‘The Triangle.’”
It’s not huge, but kids in daycare aren’t, either. Even future offensive linemen.
“It was literally five steps from the Thomsens’ house,” Kaylia said. “It was across the street, so we couldn’t go very often.
“But when we did, I don’t know what kind of flower it is, but it’s on a tree and it’s one of the white ones that are big and fluffy, you know? There are a bunch of those over there and it made the place smell really good.”
What else was over there? Well ...
“I personally hated being over there because of the snakes,” Kaylia said. “I wouldn’t look for those, they terrified me. Every time Tristan got one, he’d grab them and wave them all over the place. I don’t know how he could do that, because they’re disgusting, but he liked doing it.”
“We’d always go out here and we’d call it ‘The Triangle.’” Tristan said. “We’d always catch snakes, little garter snakes. Yeah, that was fun.”
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