Land of 10 has embarked on a series of Next Generation articles, a project that aims to bring our readers greater insight into the class of 2017 signees. Land of 10 Iowa writers Scott Dochterman and Bobby La Gesse are visiting the Iowa incoming freshman class to show you more than 40-yard dash times and recruiting rankings. Each week, Land of 10 will introduce the Iowa fan base to one of the new Hawkeyes. Up this week is 4-star OT Tristan Wirfs.
MOUNT VERNON, Iowa — No matter where Tristan Wirfs turned a volleyball hit him. He couldn’t escape from the onslaught.
Finally, an opening emerged. He picked up a ball and chucked it.
As the noise echoed across the gym, teachers stepped in. The impromptu dodgeball game ended and Tristan needed to explain why he hit a classmate with a volleyball.
“I kind of got upset because they were doing it to me and they didn’t get in trouble,” Tristan said. “Apparently I threw too hard.”
The middle school scene was a familiar one for Tristan growing up. The conversations with teachers left a lasting impression. Before his size became a bonus and the Mount Vernon High School 4-star offensive tackle signed with Iowa in the 2017 recruiting class, the biggest kid on the playground moved around like the meekest. Tristan needed to learn how to embrace his 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame to unleash his football potential.
“We had a lot of ups and downs always being the biggest,” Sarah Wirfs, his mom, said. “You are always being told to be careful and we can’t do that [because of his size and] to now finally be at a point where he can fulfill his potential and live up to what he is trying to do this whole time and wasn’t able to because there was some obstacle.”
Big, bigger, biggest
Tristan weighed 8 pounds, 10.5 ounces at birth on Jan. 24, 1999. He was a little large — the average baby weighs about 7 pounds — but gave no indication of what was coming.
People confused him for a 3-year-old when he was 12 months. They thought he was a middle school student in fourth grade. Tristan outgrew clothes the way other children go through diapers. His mom needed to pick up new outfits seemingly every time she left the house with him or his little sister, Kaylia.
“Thank heavens I worked at Target,” Sarah said. “I hit up the clearance racks big time because he was going through stuff nonstop.”
Clothes weren’t the only issue. He kept coming home from elementary and middle school upset. Teachers pulled him from recess for being too aggressive in anything from four square to football.
“I wouldn’t try to hurt somebody,” Tristan said. “I was playing two-hand touch and I’d hit them and they would go down or something. The teachers would just get so mad at me.”
He struggled to understand the problem and didn’t know what he did wrong. He was just playing with his friends, doing what they were doing.
His frustration built over the years, peaking with the dodgeball incident. It summed up most of the encounters. Tristan was playing with friends. Teachers worried about a bigger kid picking on a smaller classmate. Tristan needing to explain his actions.
“I didn’t have a good time in middle school,” Tristan said.
It resulted in a series of conversations with Sarah at the kitchen table. After the dodgeball issue, she reminded Tristan he was bigger than the other kids. He needed to be careful because he could do things others couldn’t. His friends weren’t mad at him — always a big concern — and he needed to tell her when something happened. She reached out to the parents of those involved; usually they didn’t have a problem. She also spoke with school administrators, asking why only her son was singled out.
“I just don’t think people know how to react to it,” Sarah said. “He was so much bigger and so much more athletic.”
Regardless of the year, regardless of the situation, Tristan kept hearing the same thing.
Take it easy.
Don’t hurt someone.
He walked around on eggshells, treating the world like a china cabinet he shouldn’t touch. He didn’t mind his size, in fact he liked it, but he knew it caused problems for others. So he hid it the best he could. Being passive became second nature. It was the best way to ensure no one pulled him aside during the next dodgeball match.
“It was very frustrating because he can’t ever be the way the rest of the kids were,” Sarah said.
Not until the pads came on.
A much-needed outlet
Sarah stood at the third-grade flag football game, partially impressed, partially nervous. Tristan wasn’t just big, he was one of the best athletes in town. He dominated, and every time he jumped for a pass Sarah worried about the kids falling and Tristan rolling on someone.
She wasn’t an advocate for tackle football, but with a son looking like a sixth-grader she knew the Cedar Rapids youth tackle league was the only option.
“It was the right thing to do,” Sarah said.
Tristan quickly took to the helmet and pads. He beams with pride recalling the way he impressed a coach hitting a blocking sled during his first practice in fourth grade.
“Being able to go full-out, finally being able to let loose was awesome,” Tristan said.
The product of pre-workout and salami, A new PR and 3rd best throw in Iowa History! 65' 10 1/2" ?? pic.twitter.com/oLoRAjnXtT
— Big T (@TristanWirfs74) April 11, 2017
The Cedar Rapids tackle league turned out to be the same as baseball and flag football. No one stopped him.
Tristan ran through the offense, racking up tackles. He loved it. Not because he was good, but because for once he didn’t need to think about hurting someone.
“That was a big deal,” Sarah said. “It still didn’t lighten up the rest of the times that it happened, but it gave him an outlet, a time where he knows he can go all out and he won’t get yelled at.”
Embracing his size
Mount Vernon football coach Lance Pedersen heard about a few of the Mustangs players before taking the job in 2014.
None of the players looked like his new neighbor. The sophomore stood north of 6 feet and weighed 220 pounds. He didn’t know much about Tristan, but the boy already looked the part of a football player.
“He was a big kid,” Pedersen said. “You saw a lot of potential.”
Tristan always relied on his size to succeed as an offensive lineman. He didn’t need much technique or much aggression. Simple physics won out.
The equation changed his sophomore year. He needed more than size. Pedersen watched a freak athlete — Tristan can walk on his hands and dunk a basketball from a standing position under the hoop — play as timidly as a 130-pound freshman. He spent the next three years working with Tristan to become comfortable with his physicality.
“You try to change that mindset, because he is such a nice, nice person, to channel some new aggression in a positive way took a lot of work,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen knew what he was up against. For 14 years, adults told Tristan to take it easy. Even though Tristan appreciated football because it embraced his size, he still held back in drills. He didn’t want to relive elementary school and hurt teammates or an opponent by delivering too big of a hit.
Pedersen accentuated the positive. If Tristan finished a block he made sure to congratulate him and challenge him to do it again. By instilling confidence, Pedersen hoped to bring out the inner bulldog Tristan buried years before.
“You could see improvement on a daily basis,” Pedersen said. “You build on that and to see that when you encourage him and give him good feedback he’ll work on the next thing.”
Slowly, it worked.
As a sophomore, Sarah noticed Tristan handling school situations involving his size. He was comfortable defending himself, without involving his mom, telling teachers the same things Sarah did in middle school.
“I knew he was all right,” Sarah said.
As a junior, the aggression started to show on Friday nights. Tristan earned his second of three straight all-district honors. His recruitment ended before it really began. Programs across the country sent recruiting letters. Iowa State and Michigan State showed significant interest, but he picked Iowa in December 2015, five months before winning state titles in the discus and shot put.
As a senior, the technique Tristan and Pedersen spent years refining combined with the mental makeover. Tristan earned a U.S. Army All-American Bowl invitation and all-state honors before claiming a state wrestling championship.
“Pedersen changed things for me,” Tristan said. “He told me, ‘You are big, use it.’ Now being older I know what he means.”
Tristan still stands out. People notice large men and everyone in a small town knows the star athlete, but the conversations are no longer about his size and taking it easy.
“He really is just one of the guys now,” Mount Vernon boys track coach Ryan Whitman said.
Finally, it’s easy being big.
“I kind of like being bigger,” Tristan said. “It’s nice now.”
For the complete Iowa NextGen series, click this link.