TAMPA ― Most mornings before dawn, Sarah Wirfs pulls out of the driveway of her modest home on Highway 1 in Mount Vernon, Iowa — the one that now displays a banner reading, “I (Heart) Big T,” with photos of her favorite offensive lineman.
She travels 20 miles west to the Target in Cedar Rapids, where she has worked since she was 16. The cornfields rise tall and straight as sentries and border both sides of the asphalt.
“I take county roads, and that’s the best part of my day, Sarah said. “I watch the sun rise most every morning above the cornfields, and I see deer every morning. The turkey, every morning, are in the same spot. I need it, because work gets kind of crazy, especially these days."
She started working there in middle school, shortly after her parents were divorced and eight years before she became pregnant with Tristan Wirfs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Out here, it could be 1990 or 2020. Certainly, the corn and the wildlife don’t mark time.
She stuck with this job because “40 hours a week and a paycheck" sounded pretty good, and she was steadily promoted. When Tristan and his sister, 18-year-old Kaylia, arrived, Target gave Sarah the flexibility as a team leader to manage her life.
She was there to share in the important moments with her children, to ferry Tristan around to travel baseball doubleheaders, greet the school bus after football games and bring him lunch before track meets — even the ones in Tipton that were more than an hour from work.
If there is a correlation between who is driving and who is driven, this could be it.
“She means everything to me," Tristan says of his mother.
On Thursday, when the Bucs called to inform Tristan he would be the 13th player selected in the draft, which likely will earn him a contract worth $16.2 million, a ton of images flooded Sarah’s mind.
“Mostly just all the hard work that he put in," Sarah said. “Over and over and over again. All sports. Early-morning practices. Late night bus rides home. Waiting at the school for him to pick him up. Just all of those things, knowing how hard he worked and as much of a struggle as it was making sure he had all he needed.
“It was just the best feeling. I never in a million years thought he would be going to the NFL. I just didn’t think like that. You know he’s big and strong and athletic. I wasn’t in that mindset. I was in the mom mindset, and caretaker. It didn’t cross my mind until, all of a sudden, it was smacking me in the face.”
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A gentle soul
Tristan’s dad has never been part of his life. When Sarah was a young mom raising two biracial children alone, they lived for five years in a trailer and the whole family pitched in.
Tristan grew taller and stronger than most boys in Iowa. He climbed out of his crib at nine months. He was riding a bicycle at 3. By the time he was 8, he was on a travel baseball team. A few years later, he was smacking home runs 250 feet over the fence at Davis Park and startling lifeguards by splashing baseballs down into the city pool.
But Tristan also had a gentle side and was always willing to help others.
“They always had doubleheaders," Sarah said. “So, after one of his baseball games, one of the kids’ grandpa, Donnie, would always come and he would sit behind the dugout, and Tristan comes up to him. His buddies are all hanging out, drinking their Kool-Aid and stuff. I’m in the bleachers and I look over there and he’s talking to Donnie, down on one knee, right at eye level. Just chatting away. That’s just how he was.
“I can’t tell you how many messages and phone calls I get from people who say, 'You don’t know me, but I got to talk to your son. He came over and sat with me.’ That’s just how he’s always been. He’s always been that type of kid."
In high school, Tristan excelled at everything he attempted. He won state titles in the shot put and discus. He caught the attention of Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, who offered him a scholarship.
Tristan was 6 foot 5 and weighed 320 pounds but wanted to wrestle again his senior year of high school. The problem was he would have to lose about 40 pounds.
“What are you going to do, amputate a limb?" Ferentz asked.
That may have been easier. Instead, Tristan went on a brutal diet to drop weight.
“It probably wasn’t the healthiest way to do it," he said. “My mom would make me these shakes, and I’d have this tiny little cup of it in the morning and a handful of grapes for lunch and that was about it.
“The day I made 285, we had a meet the next day. My coach made me stay the night at his house because he didn’t want me staying at home alone and having a breakdown and hit the cupboards. He fed us some broccoli and 8 ounces of water for dinner."
Tristan won the state wrestling title.
Iowa has had a history of producing quality offensive linemen for the NFL under Ferentz. Robert Gallery was the second overall pick of the Raiders in 2004. Brandon Scherff was the fifth overall selection of Washington in 2015 and a three-time Pro Bowl player.
Tristan did something no other Iowa player has done — start at tackle for the Hawkeyes as true freshman. Ferentz met with Tristan and Sarah about four times about his decision to remain at Iowa for his senior year or go to the NFL.
“Oh my gosh, that was a very tough decision," Tristan said. “... Deep down, I wanted someone to tell me what to do. I had just turned 21, and my whole life I had been told what to do. ... I woke up one morning and I was like, ‘I’m ready to do this.'"
Next chapter begins
Rarely do you find an offensive lineman as athletic as Tristan. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.85 seconds, had a vertical jump of 36.5 inches, tops among offensive linemen at the NFL combine.
Most mock drafts had him the first or second offensive tackle off the board.
But if there is a knock against Tristan, it’s that he’s too nice. He doesn’t always finish blocks.
“You look at some of the guys we have on the roster," said Bucs running game coordinator and assistant head coach Harold Goodwin. “Ali Marpet is the nicest guy in the world until he’s on the football field.
“It’s going to be a big responsibility. We won’t rush (Wirfs). But he’s going to put a lot of pressure on himself to get his butt in there."
Pressure is what Sarah feels these days working on the front lines of a global pandemic. As a team leader, her purchasing orders have increased by eight times, and she’s had to hire help. But Target has increased her pay and added some days off.
“There’s so many people that need us right now," Sarah said.
As the hours to the NFL draft Thursday melted away, the Wirfs needed Sarah to go inside the house. “Why?" she protested.
A few minutes later they summoned Sarah outside. Tristan had promised his mom a trip to Las Vegas for the glitz and glamour of an NFL draft before the world changed due to the coronavirus.
Nonetheless, with the help of his agent, Tristan had unrolled a red carpet for Sarah to walk. At the end of the street, Tristan stood beaming and holding a bouquet of flowers.
“I walk out, and Tristan is standing at the end with the flowers, and oh my goodness," Sarah said. “It was so special and so wonderful, and I’m tearing up walking down. It was so chaotic, and having everything up in the air, it was like, 'Oh man, that was really nice.’
“It was such a special thing for him to do, and I loved it. I really loved it.”
A banner day for a mother who made sure her son never lacked for opportunity.