'Pretty fun day': That time Iowa’s Aaron Costello beat future NFL star Tristan Wirfs on the mat
Aaron Costello was at home last week, much like the rest of us, watching the 2020 NFL Draft. He and the rest of the Iowa wrestling team were eagerly watching and patiently waiting for a friend’s dream to finally come true.
Almost two hours after the first round began, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs at 13th overall last Thursday. He became the 10th first-round pick under Kirk Ferentz. A multi-million dollar contract awaits.
Back in Iowa City, Costello roared in excitement. Not long after, his phone and social media profiles flooded with a picture he’s seen all too often — one of him and Wirfs on the wrestling mat during their senior year of high school.
Maybe you have seen it, too.
“It pops up on Twitter every few months,” Costello says. “My buddies will send it to me and laugh.”
Wirfs is on the right, his right arm on Costello’s head. The most interesting thing about the photo is the distinct height difference between Costello, who stands 5-foot-11, and Wirfs, who is 6-5, a modern-day David-versus-Goliath meme.
Costello won that match, a 3-2 decision in the semifinals of the Cascade Tournament. Third-period takedown. Won the tournament, too.
“Pretty fun day,” Costello says and laughs.
The stories of Wirfs’ tantalizing athleticism — a record-breaking performance at the NFL Combine, jumping cleanly out of four feet of water — are borderline mythical. Analysts raved about Wirfs shortly after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced him at No. 13.
That includes, of course, his wrestling background, which was mentioned live during ESPN’s draft broadcast last week. As a senior in 2017, Wirfs shed nearly 40 pounds to make heavyweight. He went 21-3 and won the Class 2A state title that season.
But this story isn’t about Wirfs, not exactly. It’s about the guy who beat him.
Costello first met Wirfs at a wrestling tournament in elementary school. Costello was much bigger than his peers by then and was forced to wrestle seventh- and eighth-graders to get matches. He saw Wirfs walk into the gym and smiled.
“I was just happy as heck that he showed up,” Costello recalls. “For somebody to show up and by my size, at my age, I was like, ‘Thank you.’”
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They grew up chasing each other in various sports. Costello played football for Western Dubuque, recording 34.5 tackles as a senior, but gravitated more toward wrestling. Wirfs took the opposite path, a football player who wrestled in the winter.
Wirfs, originally from Mount Vernon, blossomed into an athletic phenom. He tipped the scales at 315 pounds during football season, and spent a few weeks getting down to 285. One of his first competitions back was the Cascade Tournament in January.
Costello walked into the weigh-in area that morning and the first thing he saw was Wirfs dunking a basketball.
This will be interesting, Costello thought to himself.
Both won their first matches by fall, setting up a semifinal matchup. Costello scored a takedown with 33 seconds left in the third period to win. He then beat Iowa City Regina’s Jared Brinkman, that year’s 1A state champ, by the same score in the finals.
(Yes, all three heavyweight state champs from 2017 were in the same bracket that day.)
“The hardest part about wrestling him is just getting to him and working ties,” Costello says of Wirfs. “He has massive hands and a massive wingspan, so getting like a collar tie or something was difficult.”
Two weeks later, they met again in the finals of the WaMac Conference Tournament. Wirfs’ legs were so big that he couldn’t put the ankle band on that day. He handed it back to the official, who just smiled. Costello dictated the pace during a scoreless first period. In the second, he caught Wirfs on his hip and scooped the head for the pin.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” says Costello, who actually went 4-0 against Wirfs during their high school careers. “You can definitely tell that he’s a football-first guy, but he put his body through a decent amount of pain, I assume, to get down to 285.
“He cares about Mount Vernon. He wanted to give back to the people that helped him. He could’ve just hung it up and got ready to play football at Iowa.”
Costello ended up 55-0 that year with 44 pins and won the Class 3A state title. He was considered the No. 79 overall prospect in the 2017 class and twice reached the Junior folkstyle national finals. Wirfs beat current-Northern Iowa wrestler John McConkey in the 2A finals that February. (Brinkman, the 1A champ, now plays football at Northern Iowa.)
They stayed close over the years. Costello was at Kinnick Stadium when Wirfs made the first of his 33 career starts. Wirfs was at Carver-Hawkeye Arena for all of Iowa wrestling’s home duals this past season.
“Every now and then, I’d tell him, ‘You can come in the room, but you gotta make 285 before I wrestle you,’” Costello says with a laugh. “He'd say, ‘Man, I weigh 322.’ I go, ‘You’ve done it before!’”
As Wirfs’ draft stock rose, that picture from the Cascade Tournament reappeared more frequently. Funny story from that day: Before their match, an Iowa fan approached Costello. He had heard a rumor about Wirfs and wanted to fact-check.
“Right before the semifinals started, someone came up to me and said, ‘Hey, is Tristan de-committing and going to Ohio State?’” Costello recalls. “I’m like, ‘What?’ He’s like, ‘You know him pretty well. Is he going to Ohio State? You have to keep him at Iowa.’
“I’m about to wrestle this dude, trying to focus, but for the next hour, I’m thinking, ‘Is he going to de-commit and go to Ohio State?’”
He did not. The rest, as they say, is history.
“He’s a great rep for the wrestling community,” Costello says. “The NFL is one of the largest commodities out there, so fans will see that he used to wrestle and might give it a try.
“I’m a Bears fan, but I’m going to buy a Bucs jersey for him.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
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