How Iowa's offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs grew (and grew) to be a massive star
MOUNT VERNON, Ia. — Tristan Wirfs is a big man with a big plan for his future, and it’s not the one you might think.
“I want to be an elementary school physical education teacher,” Wirfs proclaimed in an interview with the Des Moines Register last month.
“I’ve always loved kids. I’ve always been very good with kids.”
Wirfs, at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, also happens to be very good at moving large men backward. So it’s likely that his PE dreams will have to wait until his NFL career is behind him.
But his professional aspirations reveal much about the character of Iowa’s gifted junior offensive tackle: Wirfs never seems to realize just how special he can be as an athlete, and he carries himself with a wide-eyed sweetness that makes a career spent cavorting with children in a gymnasium seem like a perfect fit.
Wirfs latched on to his idea at Mount Vernon High School, when an assignment included a stint helping out with the elementary school gym class. He hadn’t thought about what job he might do as an adult until then.
“I just had a blast over there,” Wirfs said. “If I can do anything working with kids, that would be perfect.”
Everyone who knows Wirfs has heard him say this. But they are all also aware that Wirfs is already projected as a potential first-round NFL draft pick — perhaps as early as next spring if he chooses to go pro a year early. They just don’t want to talk about that yet.
“One step at a time,” said Sarah Wirfs, sitting in the living room of the home on First Avenue, where she raised Tristan and daughter Kaylia, a high school senior. “It’s hard to look that far forward when you haven’t even played the season yet.”
A large challenge for a mother
Tristan entered the world Jan. 24, 1999, weighing 8 pounds, 10 ounces. His life has been marked by growth spurts that sound like tall tales.
As an infant, he was the size of a toddler. As a toddler, he was the size of a kindergartner. Sarah said she used to get funny looks when changing his diaper, strangers wondering why someone that large wasn’t potty-trained.
Tristan was wearing adult-sized shoes by the time he hit elementary school. He’s at a size 17 now.
Tristan’s best friend, Jamie Parker, tells a story that he swears is true. Parker and Tristan were always the two biggest kids in school growing up. They were 6-feet tall as high school freshmen. Then Wirfs went home one night and came back the next day three inches taller.
“He got his growth spurt,” Parker said. “It was never just steady. It was boom! One day, he’s biiiiig.”
Sarah said she knew when her son was about to expand when he had his “episodes.”
“He would come home from school just completely exhausted. He could not stay awake. Everything hurt — his bones hurt,” she recalled. “He would go to bed and he would sleep from 6 p.m. to 10, 11 o’clock the next day and he would just sweat like he was sweating out every ounce of water in his body.
“And shortly after that, he would put his pants on and I would say, ‘What on earth happened?’”
This happened about twice a year, she said.
Sarah would do what parents have done for generations: Stand him up by the white wall in the living room and put a pencil mark where the top of his head rested. The marks are still there, the latest from 2016, when Tristan reached 6-5.
Then she would do what most parents never have to: Go online to order shoes and pants that would fit her son. It was a constant struggle. Sarah called it “scavenging.”
Groceries were another challenge. Sarah has worked for Target for 28 years. She would buy a large volume of groceries once a week, but was always picking up spare items after clocking out — eggs or bread or peanut butter. She would buy $1.99 gallons of milk at Aldi’s and watch as Tristan consumed six or eight of them a week. She made plenty of casseroles. One with chicken and corn remains Tristan’s favorite.
Now that Tristan is in college, where he eats on the Hawkeye football program's dime, Sarah says her grocery bills have fallen by 75 percent.
Tristan was a frequent visitor to the Parker household in nearby Martelle. Every Saturday in the fall, he watched the Iowa football games there with Jamie and his father, Alan.
Jamie Parker joked that there might have been another reason for all the visits.
“I think that’s why Sarah let Tristan come over here so much — because my mom and dad had to feed him, too,” Parker said. “Every hour, the kid was into the cupboards getting chips, anything he could get his hands on. He felt bad. I said, ‘Dude, I know you’re growing.’”
A gifted all-around athlete ends up a Hawkeye
Tristan is more than just a big body, of course. It was evident early on that he was also unusually coordinated, a fluid athlete who excelled in every sport he tried.
First came soccer at age 4. Then swimming at age 5. By the time Tristan was 6, he had mastered the backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle. He won nearly every race he was in, despite relying almost solely on his strong arms. Coaches were constantly telling him to try using his legs a little as well, Sarah laughed.
Tristan remains a terrific swimmer, even as massive as he is. Go ahead and picture that.
He also was a power-hitting, smooth-fielding first baseman in baseball. He took up wrestling in third grade and won a state title as a high school senior, dropping 40 pounds in order to do so. He won state titles throwing the discus and shot put, as well.
What couldn’t he do?
"I tried to play the clarinet in fifth grade," Tristan said. "I found out we had to do summer lessons. I did that for a week and a half and I was, like, 'No, I'm not doing this anymore.'
"I wasn’t very good at it."
By high school, football was Tristan’s obvious passion. He was a lineman on both sides of the ball, but colleges began coveting him for his ability to block rather than tackle.
Iowa State offered him a scholarship first after a baseball game in Tristan’s sophomore year. He was surprised. Older kids at his school had always told him that nobody from Mount Vernon was going to play Division I sports, and he believed them. He was hoping maybe small-college programs like Coe or Wartburg would take a chance on him.
Two weeks later, Tristan attended an Iowa camp and got a scholarship offer there. That unleashed a mountain of mail that Sarah still has stored in boxes. Letters came from Michigan, Notre Dame, Kansas State, Ole Miss and Penn State, among others.
Tristan was intrigued by Michigan State and even went there for an official visit. His uncle Rich, the primary male figure in his life, went along.
They were unimpressed, felt snubbed even.
“Nobody talked to him,” Rich Wirfs recalled. “He was not real thrilled with that and kind of disappointed.”
That sealed things in Tristan’s mind. On the drive home from Michigan State, he made the call to Iowa: He was going to be a Hawkeye.
If Tristan was surprised by all the attention, Sarah was absolutely stunned. She had been thinking about ways she could help her son afford college, never dreaming that he would get a free ride.
“Stuff like that has never happened to anyone I knew, let alone to us, personally,” Sarah said. “It didn’t dawn on me until that moment (of his first scholarship offer) that, ‘Oh, my gosh. He’s going to get to go to college and it’s all going to be paid for.’”
An uncle who gives fatherly advice
Tristan got his size from a father who has never really wanted to be in the picture. His dad is 6-4, 300 pounds and rarely around.
Rich Wirfs said he’s only met the man twice. He’s not even sure where he lives.
His sister asked him to provide guidance for Tristan when needed, and Rich has been happy to oblige. He lives only two blocks away. His children, Mitch and Kennedy, are like siblings to Tristan and Kaylia.
It was Rich who taught Tristan to drive, on gravel roads from age 12.
It was Rich who had “the talk” with Tristan when the time came.
“You don’t want to be a daddy at age 18,” he told his nephew. “Just be good to people. There’s no reason to treat people poorly.”
Tristan is typically outgoing and upbeat. Rich made sure he was there for him on the rare gloomy occasions.
“If he’d be at school and other kids would have their fathers come to things, I think that was probably the toughest for him. He would get sad about that,” Rich said.
“But he feels more like a son than a nephew to me. We’re a hugging family. So every time we’re around, he calls me 'Uncy Rich' and I give him a hug and tell him I love him.”
Jamie Parker became a surrogate brother to Wirfs after his family moved into the Mount Vernon school district when he was in the second grade. On the first day of school, Jamie was visibly upset. Sarah noticed and urged Tristan to go cheer up the new boy. They played kickball at recess. A lasting bond was formed.
Soon, Tristan and Parker were engaged in front yard football battles at the Parkers' house. They put on their oversized shoulder pads and went at it, Tristan always in his Oakland Raiders’ Warren Sapp jersey and Parker in a University of Miami jersey.
Parker was bigger and typically won. He sensed that wouldn’t last.
"I was always beating up on him. He hated it. I could tell he hated it," Parker said. "But I had a feeling: 'If he’s going to get as big as they say he’s going to get, I might as well live it up now.' And I did."
Parker and Tristan’s lives revolved around sports. When they weren’t playing them, they were talking about them, or lifting weights at Elite Fitness in Lisbon to get better at them. Parker said they shared a dream about playing side by side at a major college.
Parker stopped growing at 6-feet. He’s in awe of what his friend is doing.
“I’m real thankful that at least one of us made it,” Parker said. “It’s not every day that you get to see your best buddy going up against these big, giant guys — and not just keeping up with them, but dominating them, most of the time.
“Tristan Wirfs is going to be a big name in Mount Vernon for decades.”
Can a friendly giant become 'mean' on the football field?
Iowa’s coaches want Tristan to develop a mean streak, at least when he’s on the football field. This is not an easy assignment for the affable small-town kid who just wants to be everyone’s friend.
“He’s not a mean person and he’s never going to be a mean person,” Sarah said. “He’s putting his own spin on it to try to sidestep that ‘mean’ word.”
What does that mean?
“I think it’s finishing blocks more, not letting guys up so easy — putting guys in the dirt,” Tristan clarified. “I think that’s what they’re looking for. That’s what I’m going to try to do — try my best to get a little meaner.”
Tristan said this in a tone of voice that suggested he was just trying to please his coaches. That’s his nature. It will be interesting to see if he can truly change it, even for just three hours every Saturday.
Just how easygoing is he?
Parker is amused to discover that his friend has become a fan of country music these days. He used to hate the genre, Parker said, asking him to switch radio stations if a country song came on.
“The linemen at Iowa are big country guys,” Parker said, shaking his head. “(Tristan) got to freshman year in college and he started playing Jason Aldean, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney. I said, ‘Are you country now?’ He said, ‘This is all they play in the locker room. This is all I’ve got.’”
Being a crowd-pleaser when you’re a high-profile athlete can come with a cost, though. Rich Wirfs is constantly cautioning his nephew to monitor his behavior down in the big city.
“Stay out of places that will get you in trouble,” he tells Tristan. “Here, the whole town kind of takes care of him. He’s on everybody’s mind.
“I say: ‘You’re a big person. You’re all over social media. You’ve got to watch what you’re doing.’ We probably say more than he would care to hear.”
Last July, Tristan was arrested for driving a motor scooter while intoxicated. He had two passengers and had been in some downtown bars. He was suspended for the first game of the season.
Tristan was eager to answer reporters’ questions about the topic at his next media session.
“For a while there, I was feeling invincible, that nothing can happen. And that just showed me no one is invincible,” Tristan said last month. “I really liked being able to talk to the media that day to own up to it. I wasn’t trying to hide from it. It was a mistake I made. I’m trying to put it behind me and learn from it. I’ve got to make smarter decisions, not goof around like that. I think it helped bring me down a little bit.”
Two days after that interview, Tristan got into trouble again. He was cited for being underage in a downtown bar at 11:30 p.m. It carries only a $250 fine but was a second strike. Iowa players have a 10 p.m. curfew to be out of downtown Iowa City.
“You can’t be doing those things. You stick out like a sore thumb. You just have to lay low,” Rich Wirfs has told his nephew.
That’s a work in progress.
His goals are taped to his bathroom mirror
So is Tristan’s performance on the field. He was honorable mention all-Big Ten Conference last year after not allowing a sack from his right tackle spot. This year, he wants to show equal dominance as a run-blocker.
At age 20, Tristan has already started 20 college games. He was pressed into duty early in his freshman season after Ike Boettger was injured in Week 2. He said he surprised himself with how well he held up against Big Ten bullies.
“I was afraid the defensive linemen were going to embarrass me. I think I was just doubting myself,” Tristan said.
“The same thing happened at the Army Bowl (an all-star showcase for high school players Tristan was selected for as a senior). It was my first time going against athletic freaks. Once I started playing and relaxed a little bit, I was fine. I just needed to get out of my head a little bit. I think I underestimate myself sometimes. I think I get too tense.”
The funny thing is there may be no bigger athletic freak than Wirfs. He is almost certain to draw a lot of attention whenever he gets to the NFL Combine. Two years ago, a video of him jumping out of three feet of water in a swimming pool and onto the deck in one motion made waves. He is proud of his 34 ½-inch vertical jump. And he famously set a Hawkeye record with a 450-pound hang-clean lift last spring.
All this, and he’s not done growing. Sarah Wirfs said a visit to a chiropractor last spring revealed her son’s growth plates are still open. Sarah no longer measures him against her living room wall, but she said the Hawkeye training staff recently discovered he’s up one more inch, to 6-6.
This is why the NFL talk is so prevalent.
Tristan isn’t looking that far ahead. He has written down goals on a sticky note and attached them to his bathroom mirror ever since his high school days.
Here is this year’s version: Consensus all-American. First team all-Big Ten. The best teammate he can be for his fellow Hawkeyes.
He's even conceded that a future as a PE instructor is actually “Plan B” right now. Maybe he’s finally done underestimating himself.
“My goals are as realistic as I can make them,” he said.
“The harder I work, the more realistic they become.”
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.