By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tristan Wirfs was built to be an offensive lineman in more ways than just his mammoth size.
His personality also fits perfectly for the position, because at its very core, an offensive lineman’s role more than anything else is to help others.
An offensive lineman helps the quarterback by providing pass protection and by building a wall that separates the defense.
An offensive lineman also paves the way for running backs to gain yards with as little resistance as possible and helps to provide time for receivers to get open.
Everything an offensive lineman does is for the benefit of others, and Wirfs seems to follow that example on and off the field.
The starting right tackle for the Iowa football team is known back home in Mount Vernon for his friendly demeanor and for his willingness to help others.
Mount Vernon football coach Lance Pedersen told a story on Thursday about the time when Wirfs showed up at a track meet despite having an injured ankle that caused him to miss the competition.
Wirfs was one of the state’s top performers in the shot put and the discus at the time, so his advice and his willingness to help others was greatly appreciated.
“He sprained his ankle and couldn’t throw the discus and we hosted a track meet and he’s there helping the young kids throwing the discus and shot, helping them where he could’ve easily been home resting his ankle, he’s out there helping those kids try to get better,” Pedersen said of Wirfs. “And it wasn’t just Mount Vernon kids, either. He was helping anybody that he could help because that’s just the kind of person he is, the nature of who he is.”
Pedersen then thought of another story that helps to describe Wirfs’ personality.
Pedersen and his wife, Brenda, were taking a walk in their hometown of Lisbon when Wirfs drove by on his way to visit his grandmother, who also lives in Lisbon.
Instead of just waving or honking the horn, Wirfs stopped and started a conversation with two people that mean a great deal to him.
“Most high school kids would wave at you as you go by and Tristan pulls into the next driveway and we talked for 25 or 30 minutes,” Pedersen said. “And to me, that’s a rarity. You don’t see where a kid will take the time to speak with other people like that. And that’s just something that he does for everyone and it’s just very unique about him.”
There is so much about Wirfs that is unique, including his 6-foot-5, 320-pound body.
He was blessed with incredible size and with immense talent that made him a multi-sport star in football, wrestling, track and field and baseball at Mount Vernon High School.
Wirfs also became the first true freshman to start at offensive tackle for Iowa under head coach Kirk Ferentz last season, and will make his 10th career start on Saturday against Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
Wirfs is friends with some of the Northern Iowa players, including defensive lineman and former Iowa City Regina standout Jared Brinkman.
They built a friendship while competing against each other in track and field in high school.
“A lot of guys I know from track are on the UNI team, so it’ll be nice getting to play against them,” Wirfs said. ‘Most of them I never played against in high school in football, but I competed against them in other sports.
“So that’ll be kind of cool getting to see them.”
Wirfs and Brinkman could be matched against each other in Saturday’s game.
“Me and him are good buddies from track, so that’ll be fun,” Wirfs said.
Pedersen wasn’t surprised to hear that Wirfs had spoken so fondly of his past and current competitors because that’s Tristan Wirfs.
“It’s not fake,” Pedersen said. “It’s who he is and what he does. And that’s why he’s so much fun to be around because of the kind of person he is.”
Wirfs isn’t perfect, however, and that became apparent when he was arrested for drunken driving shortly before the start of preseason practice in late July.
Wirfs made his 2018 season debut in last Saturday’s 13-3 victory over Iowa State after having been suspended for the season opener against Northern Illinois.
“It was really exciting to be back out there, to be back with my teammates I think was the biggest part,” Wirfs said. “It was hard being away from them last Saturday.”
Pedersen sent a text message to Wirfs the morning after Wirfs was arrested.
“I said you know, we all make mistakes, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect in anything I do,” Pedersen said of his message. "And I said it’s very important that this will refine him and not define him. And I think that’s the path he will take.
“I’m sure the phone call home to mom was a very difficult thing for him because he has such love for her and everything she’s done for him. And I think this will make him be even more careful and do things right. Tristan isn’t the kind of kid that does a lot of things wrong anyway. But as an 18 or 19-year old kid, we all make mistakes. But this is a big one and it’s important that it can’t happen again.”
Pedersen was hired as the Mount Vernon football coach in 2014, which was prior to Wirfs’ sophomore year, and Pedersen still remembers their first meeting face to face.
“I think it was at a baseball game where I really started to say, ‘holy smokes; this kid’s on our team,” Pedersen said. “I was getting pretty excited about him obviously. He was a good-sized kid at that point in time.
“But same thing, though. Our first meeting he was just a great young man. He looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand and had that big smile on his face. He’s just a great young man.”
Pedersen credits Wirfs mother, Sarah Wirfs, for raising her talented son to be humble, respectful of others and driven to succeed.
“He’s a great family man,” Pedersen said. “His mom has done a great job of raising him. Tristan is the kind of guy when he walks into a room, he can light up the whole room. And that’s something I was excited about when he went to Iowa was for everybody else from across the state to be able to see what we saw for four years here at Mount Vernon. He’s just a happy, great guy. His smile lights up a room, just a neat guy to be around.”
Wirfs showed his funny side by performing a walking hand stand on the field while attending the USA Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio as a high school senior. His performance went viral on Twitter because it’s not often that you see a 300-pound kid walking on his hands.
“He’s a huge, strong kid, but very athletic as well,” Pedersen said.
Wirfs is also big deal to the kids now growing up in Mount Vernon. They look up to him and respect what he has accomplished so far.
Wirfs faced the glare of the spotlight at Iowa’s media day event on Aug. 11 and talked candidly about his arrest. He expressed regret for letting so many people down, especially his mother.
But if there is one good thing about being suspended, it made Wirfs appreciate football even more.
“Not being there with my teammates, like the guys I live with, they all got some of their first snaps against Northern Illinois, and not being there to experience that with them was real tough,” Wirfs said.
Pedersen often gets asked about Wirfs, including just minutes before being interviewed for this article.
“I was just finishing up one of my health classes this morning and somebody asked me about him,” said Pedersen, who teaches at the Mount Vernon Middle School. “The fact of the matter is at Iowa when you do make a mistake everybody knows about it.
“So it’s a huge learning experience and I know he’ll be even a better person.”
Wirfs spoke with Pedersen while attending one of Mount Vernon's recent football practices. They spoke about a number of things, including Wirfs' life after college, which many think will include a career in the NFL.
"He was at practice the other day and we were talking and he's looking at going into elementary education and working with kids his whole life." Pedersen said.
In other words, Wirfs is looking at a profession in which he could help others.
That should hardly come as a surprise.