By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There was a lot to take from Iowa’s 48-31 victory over Minnesota this past Saturday in Minneapolis besides Floyd of Rosedale back to Iowa City.
From the fake field goal called Herky that resulted in a four-yard touchdown run for tight end T.J. Hockenson to the targeting call on linebacker Amani Jones to the fact that Iowa’s receivers combined for 14 catches and two touchdowns, the game was unique and memorable to say the least.
But it was a photo of two Iowa players – offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Dalton Ferguson – that stood out the most to me because it really hit home, so to speak.
Because it isn’t often that a kid from Mount Vernon gets to play alongside a young man from Solon as starting offensive linemen on the Iowa football team.
Wirfs is the kid to whom I was referring, considering he’s only 19 years old and not even two years removed from high school, while Ferguson is the young man at 22, a fifth-year senior who recently became the father of twin girls.
Their lives are very different away from football, but for those three hours on Saturday, and for the countless hours in practice, Wirfs and Ferguson are practically joined at the hip, much like in the above photo.
Ferguson has been like a mentor to Wirfs, on and off the field.
They knew each other from growing up in rival towns on Highway 1, so it was only natural that Ferguson would take a special interest in helping Wirfs adjust to college.
“He’s definitely a mentor,” Wirfs said Tuesday., “There’s still some stuff I’m trying to pick up on and even during games, sometimes, he will kind of help me out. We’ll come off to the sideline and he’ll be like, what did you see there and what did you feel? And stuff like that.
“In practice, he’s doing the same thing. In meetings, we’ll be talking and stuff. Yeah, I’d say he’s definitely been a mentor.”
Wirfs and Ferguson form the right side of Iowa’s offensive line as the starting right tackle and starting right guard, respectively.
The photo from last Saturday’s game, which was taken by Allhawkeyes photographer Jeff Yoder, shows Wirfs and Ferguson getting lined up for a play. Ferguson appears to be saying something to Wirfs in preparation for the ball being snapped.
Yoder posted the photo on Twitter shortly after the game and asked fans to provide their own caption, which many did.
Wirfs noticed that a theme quickly developed.
“A lot of them were talking about food,” Wirfs said of the captions. "When it got loud in there I think he was just telling me what the snap count was. That might be it. I don’t know.”
It makes sense that some of the captions would involve food since the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game gets to keep Floyd, a bronze statue of a pig, and since Wirfs and Ferguson weigh 320 and 308, pounds, respectively.
But there is also a serious side to the photo that captures a friendship that has been building for years.
Ferguson was three years ahead of Wirfs in high school, so they never competed against each other in football.
Their first head-to-head competition came in track and field where they both were standout throwers. Wirfs was an up-and-coming freshman, while Ferguson was a well-established senior when they met for the first time as competitors.
Wirfs still remembers it as if it happened yesterday.
“It was pretty awesome being a freshman when he was a senior because I remember at the Mount Vernon Invite that we had for track, it was our first indoor meet of the year,” Wirfs said. “It was at Cornell and just watching him throw, he was throwing like 58 (feet), he was throwing it so far and I was like throwing it 42 (feet).
“But it was (awesome) just getting to be there and talk to him. He’s such a nice person.”
Wirfs was inspired by watching Ferguson throw that day, and little did he know it at the time, but Wirfs would actually surpass Ferguson in the shot put and discus.
Ferguson has the distinction of throwing the shot put over 60 feet in high school, which is rare, but Wirfs has the distinction of being one of the top throwers in state history.
Wirfs won a state discus title as a sophomore and became just the fourth male prep in Iowa to win the shot put and discus state titles in consecutive years, and the first to win three straight discus titles since the 1950s.
The kid who struggled to throw the shot put over 40 feet as a freshman at the Mount Vernon Invite had a career-best toss of 66 feet, 3 ¼ inches, which ranks second all-time in Iowa.
Wirfs also came to Iowa as a heralded four-star recruit in football, while Ferguson came as a walk-on.
Wirfs became the first true freshman last season to start at either tackle position under Kirk Ferentz, while Ferguson didn’t make his first start until this season. And that was partly due to Wirfs being suspended for the season opener against Northern Illinois following his arrest for drunken driving in late July.
So as much they have in common, their stories are different, too.
Ferguson was thought to be just a temporary replacement at left tackle where he started in the season opener, but he has since started the last three games at right guard and is expected to make his fifth career start on Saturday at Indiana.
“He’s helped me with a ton of stuff, just kind of with the transition from high school),” Wirfs said of Ferguson. “I didn’t think it was a very tough transition. But still having someone right there that you can talk to is very nice.”
Wirfs relied on the support of his teammates after being arrested in late July for operating a scooter while under the influence. He apologized at media day in August for disappointing his family, friends, teammates and coaches, and especially his mother, and he vowed to learn from the experience.
The bond between teammates is helpful during times of adversity because they provide both strength and comfort.
Wirfs has learned from the experience and he credits his role as an Iowa football player for helping him move forward.
"It's just kind of nice having that scheduled routine," Wirfs said. "And when classes start, you've got lifting, meetings, practice, class and then meetings in the afternoon. it's kind of just that regime that you get used to."
But should Wirfs ever start to feel overwhelmed with his demanding schedule, all he has to do is look at the guy next to him on the right side of the Iowa offensive line for some perspective.
Wirfs is amazed at how well Ferguson has handled all of his responsibilities since becoming a father. Being a student-athlete and a Division I football player is hard enough, but Ferguson also has the daunting task of being a father to twin girls.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know how he does it,” Wirfs said. “I haven’t met his two little girls yet. I can’t wait.”
Wirfs smiled and his eyes lit up as he talked about playing alongside his close friend and mentor at Tuesday’s press conference, which Ferguson did not attend. Wirfs visited Iowa on numerous occasions during high school, and he spent much of his time on campus with Ferguson.
“Seeing him for the rest of my high school career at Iowa when I’d take visits and stuff, he’d talk to me and everything,” Wirfs said. “But I never thought I’d get to play with him. But getting to do that now and getting to play right next to him, is pretty awesome, I think.”