Mount Vernon, Iowa (pop: 4,435), sits on a paha, a long, narrow hill that stretches for a mile and rises about 100 feet above the surrounding landscape. Known for sidewalk festivals and quaint coffee shops, Mount Vernon once was named one of the “coolest” small towns in America by a travel magazine. It has also been called “one hill of a town.”
In it resides one mountain of a man.
Long before he blew up the NFL scouting combine in February with feats of uncommon speed and jumping ability for a 6-foot-5, 320-pound human, and before he became one of the best offensive linemen in the long history of University of Iowa greats, Tristan Wirfs was a larger-than-life kid in his bucolic hometown.
So many stories.
Wirfs led Mount Vernon High to the state football semifinals in 2016, then dropped nearly 40 pounds for wrestling season and captured the Class 2A state heavyweight title at 285.
He threw the discus so far in track and field practice that it cleared a tall fence and landed in the middle of an occupied tennis court. “Kind of a ‘holy crap’ type of moment,” track coach Ryan Whitman told the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Wirfs, who altered his practice schedule for the safety of the tennis team, became the fourth boy in state history to win the discus and shot put titles in consecutive years.
He dabbled in baseball for a couple of years, batting .400 with tape-measure home runs and throwing 80 mph fastballs. He started riding a bike when he was 3, won swimming medals at 5 and learned how to ice skate when he was 7.
On the lighter side, he entertained folks at the local pool with flips off the high board and, in the ultimate pool moment, he jumped out of the shallow end and onto the pool deck in a single bound. Nailed it on the second try. That happened in college and made him a social media sensation.
Spring, summer, fall or winter, Wirfs always competed in sports as a youngster. He was bigger, faster, stronger and just plain better than everyone, elevating himself to favorite-son status in Mount Vernon. He went from big fish in a small pond to the Big Ten Conference, and soon he will be a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft, perhaps even a top-10 choice. ESPN analyst Todd McShay projects Wirfs to be drafted No. 8 by the Arizona Cardinals.
He grew up in a town that emphasized the concept of “team” and multiple-sport participation, yet there was something else that drove him. At the time, he didn’t know what it was.
“As I got older,” he said, “I figured it out.”
Wirfs was smitten with football at a young age. In Mrs. Kohl’s kindergarten class, the kids were given a “Very Important Person” project, which required them to list interesting things about themselves on a poster.
No. 8 on his list: “Tristan wants to be a football player.”
His favorite food (pizza) and favorite restaurant (Hardee’s) were higher on the list than football — a growing 5-year-old knows his priorities — but the sport was on his mind even before he started playing organized ball. By his senior year at Mount Vernon, he had grown to his current height and weight.
He was on his way.
Wirfs received a three-year master class in offensive line play at Iowa, which has produced 17 draft picks at the position since coach Kirk Ferentz took over in 1999. The group includes Washington’s Brandon Scherff, the L.A. Chargers’ Bryan Bulaga, and Marshal Yanda, who recently retired after a brilliant career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Yanda’s Pro Bowl jersey hangs in Iowa’s offensive line room, with photos of other Hawkeyes greats adorning the wall.
“You definitely feel the tradition,” Wirfs told ESPN. “I don’t know about pressure, but there’s a want to continue on that legacy. You want to be great.”
Iowa’s unofficial football motto is “Leave the jersey in a better place,” and Wirfs certainly left his mark. He was the first freshman offensive lineman to start under Ferentz, and — the bigger headline — he beat Scherff’s legendary school record in the hang clean lift.
He did four reps at 450 pounds, one better than Scherff, the current Washington Redskins standout. It resulted in bedlam in the weight room and a viral video on social media. To quote his old track coach, it was a “holy crap” kind of moment.
Wirfs seems capable of anything at any time. He can walk on his hands, with his size 17 feet pointing to the sky. That always amazed his coaches and teammates at Iowa. Offensive line coach Tim Polasek was reviewing practice tape one time when, in the corner of the screen, he saw Wirfs, on the sideline, make a spectacular one-handed catch on an overthrown pass.
“[He’s] freakishly explosive with a tremendous ability to bang and move,” Polasek said. “On top of that, he has world-class strength.
“Some of the stuff big guys struggle with” — Polasek paused to laugh — “are easy for him.”
Wirfs delivered more freakish moments at the scouting combine, solidifying his status as one of the top offensive tackles in the draft. He did 36.5 inches in the vertical jump, better than many skill-position players, and he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds — the fastest time by a 320-pound-plus player since at least 2006.
.@TristanWirfs74’s ridiculous athleticism was on full display at the #NFLCombine 💪😤 @HawkeyeFootball pic.twitter.com/eYaKaonjTF
— NFL (@NFL) February 29, 2020
“It was one of the best combines you will ever see from an offensive lineman,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “[As a blocker], he’s not a finisher yet — but he’s technically sound and he’s really good in a zone-blocking scheme, and he’s good in pass pro as well.”
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said Wirfs has “a chance to be an All-Pro guard. … He can play tackle in the NFL, but he can be an elite guard.”
If there’s a knock on Wirfs, it’s that he’s shy on killer instinct. In college, his coaches reminded him of the importance of finishing blocks. He said the biggest criticism he hears from pro scouts is that he’s not mean enough. Bemused by that perception, he noted he once had 14 knockdowns in a game against Nebraska.
“I’ll knock ’em down, I’ll help ’em up and I’ll try to do it again,” he said.
Wirfs hasn’t failed at anything in life — well, except for that time he gave up the clarinet after a couple of weeks in elementary school. He has generated little controversy in his career, the lone blemish occurring the summer before his sophomore season.
He was suspended for Iowa’s 2018 opener because he was arrested and charged with operating a motor scooter while intoxicated.
“I was kind of feeling invincible, and nobody is invincible,” Wirfs said. “It was a stupid mistake. I took my moped to the bar and picked my buddies up. I had been drinking. You stand out with three guys on a moped a little bit. It was bound to happen. I’m glad it did, because it was a big reality check.”
It was out of character for Wirfs, who is known for his friendly, easygoing demeanor. His high school coach, Lance Pedersen, said Tristan is so affable that it’s not in his nature to simply do a quick drive-by wave. If he’s passing in his car, he will stop and chat, as he did recently for 30 minutes.
“Not only does he have amazing God-given ability,” Pedersen said, “but he’s the most humble person you will meet.”
He was always that person.
Wirfs, who lived with his mother, grandmother and sister in Mount Vernon’s Colonial Estates trailer park until he was 5, loved to visit the adjacent trailers to chat with the senior citizens. He helped them with their yard work and entertained them with his gift of gab.
“It was pretty comical,” said Sarah Wirfs, Tristan’s mother. “That, more than likely, is why he can talk to anyone — and he will talk to everyone. He loves talking and being social.”
The Wirfs lived in a standard-sized trailer that included two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. It was in the trailer that one of his earliest and most profound memories occurred.
He remembers getting up in the middle of the night, sitting in a rocking chair and waiting for his mother to leave for her 4 a.m.-to-noon shift at the local Target. It’s so vivid he can recall what he was watching on TV — a cartoon called “JoJo’s Circus.”
“I can’t remember how old I was, probably 3 or 4,” he said. “I don’t know, I just have that memory tucked away in there.”
It’s tucked in there with the time he saw his mother crying on the phone with her sister, upset because the bills were mounting and she wasn’t sure how she would pay them and have enough money to spring for Tristan’s sports equipment and league fees.
Sarah Wirfs raised two kids with the help of her mother — Tristan’s father never was in the picture — and she worked long hours to support them. She always told them they would have everything they need but not everything they want.
Tristan noticed the struggles, but he was too young to comprehend his mother’s plight. Eventually, he did. That’s when he figured it out, when he started to compete with a greater purpose.
“Why would I make [her sacrifices] go to waste?” he said. “It kind of motivates me. I’m like, ‘I’m going to do the best I can in every sport just to make it worth it.’
“She’s definitely been a big part of motivation for me. I love her more than she knows, and hopefully, I get to pay that back to her someday. That would mean a lot.”
They left the trailer park when Tristan was 5, moving into a house with a spacious backyard. “The best thing ever,” said Sarah, who has provided stability for her family.
She got a job at Target when she was 16, and she’s still there, 28 years later. Now she’s a local celebrity, as the anticipation in Mount Vernon builds toward the April 23-25 draft. Tristan is the most famous athlete in the town’s history.
In 2010, an undrafted defensive lineman named Matt Kroul, who also attended the University of Iowa, played six games for the New York Jets. Kroul returned to the area and lives on a farm on the outskirts of Mount Vernon.
“It’s definitely a place you’d want to visit sometime,” Wirfs said of his hometown. “It’s probably one of the friendliest places you will find. It’s not a selfish town. Everybody is looking out for everybody. It’s kind of like a big team.”
A team led by Mount Tristan.