Leistikow: From Iowa to the Super Bowl, the unlikely journeys of Buccaneers Anthony Nelson, Tristan Wirfs

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

On Friday, Jeff and Christy Nelson of Waukee will fly to Tampa, Florida.

On Saturday, Sarah Wirfs of Mount Vernon will do the same.

They’ll have tickets awaiting them to attend Sunday’s Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium — a place they have gotten to know quite well, with a parking lot they’ve also gotten to know well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The players’ parking lot has been a welcomed safe haven for the families of Anthony Nelson and Tristan Wirfs during this challenging NFL season. It’s the one postgame area at the stadium that parents are permitted to mingle with their sons amid strict COVID-19 protocols. It just so happens that the assigned parking spaces for Nelson and Wirfs, two former Iowa Hawkeyes who have become young contributors for the Super Bowl-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are just a few stalls apart. During the pandemic, that portion of Tampa pavement has become a transplanted slice of Iowa.

And now, the Bucs are the first team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl at their home stadium. So, back to Tampa the Iowans go.

“It’s nice to have a little bit of home wherever you are,” Christy Nelson says. “The Wirfs’, they’re just an amazing family. It’s really cool.”

Nelson, 23, almost quit football as a high school sophomore. And here he is, as the top backup for two fierce Buccaneers pass rushers in his second year in the NFL.

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Wirfs, who turned 22 on the day the Buccaneers beat the Green Bay Packers to advance to Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, was drafted into the NFL a little more than eight months ago. And now here he is, a rookie assigned to protect the one and only Tom Brady.

“Everything has to align perfectly, really,” Christy Nelson says. “For Tristan in his first year and Anthony (in his) second year, it’s kind of unbelievable.”

Here is a slice of these Iowans' Super Bowl stories, with help from their proud parents.

Tom Brady, left, knows he can trust right tackle Tristan Wirfs (78), a rookie from Iowa. Wirfs has allowed just one quarterback sack while playing every down in 19 Tampa Bay games this season.

Tristan Wirfs has become an instant sensation in Tampa.

When Wirfs was drafted No. 13 overall by the Buccaneers, he knew he would be joining a team led by ageless Brady — who will appear in his record 10th Super Bowl on Sunday — and blocking next to iconic tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to sign with Tampa Bay shortly before the NFL Draft.

But what had him more nervous was the Florida humidity. Wirfs (6-foot-5, 320 pounds) is a large man who sweats a lot. His mom says he would lose 10 to 12 pounds during one high school wrestling practice. That’s why he wanted to get to Florida as quickly as possible, to acclimate to his surroundings — even though he was unsure whether access to team training facilities would be feasible amid the pandemic.

Sarah Wirfs went with her son to Tampa in late May … and was amazed at what she witnessed.

How's this for a perfect pandemic selfie? Through a chain-link fence at Lambeau Field, Tristan Wirfs and his mom, Sarah, take in the victory that launched the Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.

No matter where they went, she realized her son was already a star.

At Target. At restaurants. At the furniture store. At a car dealership. Every time Sarah and her son went somewhere to help get him set up for life on his own, somebody wanted to meet him and, naturally, take a picture with the Buccaneers' prized first-round pick.

Every time. And Tristan was always happy to oblige, with his infectious smile.

Remember, this was 3½ months before he would play his first snap as a Buccaneer.

“Back here (in Iowa), I get it. I could not believe, every place we went, they knew him,” Sarah Wirfs says. “The mattress store, for crying out loud! Unbelievable.”

But while the gravity of her son’s importance was hitting Sarah then, Tristan was — and has been — unfazed by the crazy-high expectations and pressure that comes with being a first-round pick and protector of arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history.

Wirfs was known at Iowa as a big, kind puppy dog who had a hard time developing a mean streak. He goes with the flow, but he does it with a quiet, determined work ethic. Wirfs was more interested in immersing himself in football than being star struck over playing with Brady. A signing bonus of $10.8 million didn’t change his practicality or demeanor.

And … as the rest of the NFL knows by now, Wirfs stepped in and did his job. With preseason games canceled, Wirfs’ first NFL snap came in a regular-season game against the New Orleans Saints.

And he has played every Tampa Bay offensive snap since — 16 regular-season games, three in the playoffs — to near perfection. According to Pro Football Focus, Wirfs allowed one sack in his rookie season at right tackle. One.

And according to PFF, he's allowed just one quarterback pressure in playoff wins at Washington, New Orleans and Green Bay. One.

Brady, drafted by the New England Patriots in 2000 one year after Wirfs was born, surely is appreciative.

Tristan Wirfs is shown with his mother, Sarah, and uncle, Rich, in front of Raymond James Stadium ... where Tristan played for Iowa in the 2019 Outback Bowl against Mississippi State.

As Hawkeye fans realized in 2017, Wirfs is adept at stepping into a prominent role at a young age. He remains the only true freshman ever to start a game at tackle in the 22-year Kirk Ferentz era. 

So, why not make the Super Bowl in his rookie season? Heck, why not win it? His football ceiling seems to get higher by the day.

“It doesn’t seem real. But at the same time, it seems like everything that’s happening is supposed to be happening,” Sarah Wirfs says. “That’s just always how it’s kind of been.”

Wirfs is likely to play in Tampa through at least the 2024 season, when his rookie deal (plus a fifth-year option) expires. If he continues to perform like this, Wirfs will play in the NFL for a long time.

He’s already laid down roots there, buying a four-bedroom house in December. In the backyard are a basketball hoop and a pool. Tristan's mom and only sibling, sister Kaylia, spent about three weeks of December helping to get Tristan transitioned to his new home.

They laid low while there, wanting to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 and giving it to Tristan. They ordered curbside carryout or delivery for dinner. They got curbside supplies and groceries at Target and Publix.

But Tristan took them out once, the day after Christmas, after he flew back from that day's game in Detroit. He took his mom to a Subaru dealership. They knew him there, too.

Wirfs surprised his mom by giving her a new Ascent, equipped with a red bow, to take back to Mount Vernon.

The gift was an emotional moment. Sarah Wirfs worked for 29 years at the Target on Blairs Ferry Road in Cedar Rapids, using those hard-earned funds to raise her two children as a single mother. They didn’t have much growing up; the father was never in Tristan's life.

But this new car wasn’t about the money. It was about the love.

“Just a proud moment when they have those selfless thoughts,” Sarah says. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

After 29 years, Sarah left her Target job in November. She plans to work again someday, even though Tristan has said he’ll take care of her. For now, she’s taking the time to enjoy and support her son.

And … go to the Super Bowl.

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Anthony Nelson (98) has become an outside linebacker in the NFL's 3-4 defense after three starring years at Iowa as a defensive end in a 4-3. Nelson started one game this season and is a top rotational piece for the Bucs' best-in-the-NFL run defense.

Anthony Nelson’s journey was equally unlikely.

While he is the son of a former Hawkeye football player under Hayden Fry, Anthony’s body seemed more built for basketball than football. Anthony was always athletic, yes, but tall and skinny. Football coaches had him playing quarterback growing up. He could throw the ball a (figurative) mile.

But, during the summer before his sophomore year at Waukee High School, Anthony was resigned to being a backup quarterback and decided he was done with football. He would start focusing on hoops — where, already at 6-foot-3, he was an intriguing college prospect. But after a month of football went by, Nelson realized he missed hanging out with his friends — and found a renewed desire get back on the football field.

At that point, his father — a defensive lineman at Iowa from 1988-92 — encouraged him to change positions.

“I told him, ‘Why don’t you try defense? I think you’d be good at it,’” Jeff Nelson says.

Jeff had coached Anthony when he was younger, and he noticed Anthony's uncanny knack at defensive end. While he only ended up playing a handful of games for Waukee’s sophomore team that season, Anthony stuck with it and kept growing. By his junior year, he was 6-5. As a senior, he was 6-7.

Suddenly, Division II basketball scholarship offers took a back seat to football interest. After initially committing to Iowa State, Nelson changed his mind and became a Hawkeye ... and a developmental project. He arrived in Iowa City at around 210 pounds. He would leave less than four years later, tipping the scales at around 272 without losing his excellent explosiveness.

Anthony Nelson waves to his family after the Buccaneers' NFC Championship Game win at Lambeau Field. Nelson, 23, is a second-year outside linebacker from Waukee.

Their son being a college football player was previously unfathomable for Jeff and Christy Nelson. But, when Jeff saw his son’s very first game as a Hawkeye — Sept. 3, 2016, against Miami of Ohio — his perception changed.

Anthony had six tackles, including 2½ sacks, in his first college action as a redshirt freshman. The thought entered his mind then that Anthony had the potential to take his game to the NFL level.

After racking up 23 sacks in and graduating in 3½ years with a 3.84 GPA in business and accounting, Nelson skipped his final year of eligibility at Iowa to enter the 2019 NFL Draft. His name was called with 107th overall pick (in the fourth round). He would be a Buccaneer, under new coach Bruce Arians.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-year player Anthony Nelson, second from right, is flanked by (from left), father Jeff, fiancee Jordyn and mom Christy.

In Tampa Bay, Nelson has now shed some weight to gain more speed as a pass rusher. He’s an outside linebacker in Tampa’s 3-4 scheme, rotating on the left and right sides (as he did at Iowa with A.J. Epenesa and Parker Hesse) with elite pass-rushers Jason Pierre-Paul (89 career sacks) and Shaquil Barrett (41½ career sacks).

His job on Super Sunday? To track down Patrick Mahomes.

“He’s a huge team guy,” Jeff says. “He’s very analytical in his thinking. With how intelligent he is in school, he’s intelligent when it comes to football. It really helps him because at that level, everybody’s athletically gifted. How you process things mentally from a football perspective, he excels tremendously.”

Like Wirfs, Nelson has put down roots in Tampa. He bought a house there. He and fiancée Jordyn Steinkritz, his high school sweetheart, are getting married in June.

The Nelsons will arrive Friday but won’t see their son until after the game. The same is true for the Wirfs family. There’s no reason to risk any pregame interaction with only a few more days left in the season. The families will stay in Tampa until the middle of next week, not worried about the next game or finding a slab of concrete in a parking lot to commiserate. It'll be time to relax, enjoy each other's company and reflect.

Here they are, two Iowans on the same team, in their early 20s, playing prominent NFL roles … who are one victory away from being a Super Bowl champion for life.

“Once it’s over, we’re going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, we were at the Super Bowl,’” Christy Nelson says. “It’s crazy. It could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I hope it’s not, but it could be, you know?”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.