Editor’s note: First in an eight-part series about Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, who grew up in and left his mark on Mount Vernon. Many in the small Eastern Iowa town left marks on him, too.
By Marc Morehouse, The Gazette
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 one square mile where Wirfs grew up.
This is a little about what can hold you back. This is mostly about what moves you forward.
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 Oregon 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, 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. It’s KRNA on the radio and, really unbelievably, it’s Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”
“I’ve never had a problem.”
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,” Sarah said of Marc Siders. “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 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.
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.”