TAMPA, Fla. — Nothing was going to stop new Tampa Bay Buccaneers right tackle Tristan Wirfs from giving his mother, Sarah, a red-carpet walk to remember on draft night — not even a global pandemic that forced prospects and their families to stay home. He wasn’t able to give her a glitzy night on the town in Las Vegas, so he surprised her with a makeshift red carpet in the front yard of their Mount Vernon, Iowa, home.
Instead of her donning a sparkly gown and him a custom-made suit, they wore T-shirts. Hers read, “We love you, Big T.” Wirfs, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, enveloped her with a giant bear hug and gave her a bouquet of flowers before leading her inside. “I love you so much,” he said, as her eyes welled up with tears.
“That was the last thing I had ever expected,” Sarah said. “I didn’t think anything extra like that would be an option or that anyone would think of something like that. It was pretty special. I was pretty emotional.”
“‘You find a way,'” Wirfs told ESPN. “I think that’s kind of been my mom’s mantra. She found a way to do everything and more for me and my sister.”
It’s what they’ve done their entire lives together. It’s what Sarah, who raised Tristan and his younger sister, now 18-year-old Kaylia, as a single mother taught them, and what he’ll take with him as he navigates new waters of the NFL in an offseason shrouded in uncertainty.
She’d finish up her job at Target, where she’s worked for 28 years, and drive home to fix a late lunch for Tristan. Then she was off to watch his track meets, where he was the Class 3A discus and shot put state champion in back-to-back years. During the winter months, she’d spend half the day on Saturdays at Tristan’s wrestling tournaments and then go to Kaylia’s archery competitions in the afternoon.
“I put 20,000 miles a year on my car, minimum,” Sarah said.
Even in the days leading up to the draft, she worked nights on consecutive days due to such high demand in the store’s online orders, while also trying to coordinate cameras set up in her home for the TV broadcast and for local news.
“Just her work ethic and watching her struggle and grind every day, coming home after 12-hour shifts at Target and working overnight — she’d get home when my sister and I were going to school in the morning — just seeing that, it’s hard not to want to be great,” Wirfs said. “She was 100 percent the driving force [in my life].
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“Seeing her grind every day, I kinda thought to myself, ‘Why would I make this go to waste? Why would I not want to be the best? To make it up to her for letting me do this.'”
Wirfs credits his mom for his outgoing personality. Even at 5, he could cheerfully approach anyone and strike up a conversation.
While Kaylia inherited Sarah’s musical talents — Kaylia played the cello, flute, tuba and mellophone while Sarah played the saxophone and the violin — Tristan got her competitiveness.
“We’ll play cards or Yahtzee, and we’ll be butting heads,” Wirfs said.
Their lives weren’t without struggle, though. They lived in Mount Vernon’s Colonial Estates trailer park with his grandmother until he was 5 years old. He still remembers Sarah teaching him how to ride his bike in the park’s court when he was 3.
Even when they moved into their current four-bedroom home, they had no furniture to fill it with.
“We had our mattresses from the trailer and we just kind of threw them on the living room floor and all slept there,” Wirfs said.
He’d overhear his mother on the phone, sobbing to her sister.
“As a kid, I didn’t know what it was for, what she was crying about; and as I got older, I realized it was about bills,” Wirfs said. “She’d be like, ‘I had to buy Tristan a new pair of cleats or a new baseball glove’ — just stuff to even allow me to play a sport.”
“It’s been a long, hard road. I struggled for a long time,” Sarah said, adding that she got a lot of help from family and friends.
“I felt like I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop because there was always something. Things were never going very well for very long. Something would always come up. I would have car problems, and when I got a more reliable car, then it seemed like every appliance in the house would break down — the stove quit working, the dishwasher quit working, the washer quit working four times, the furnace went out, the air conditioner. I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’”
She was always so worried she’d never be able to fill the void.
“I was just trying really hard just to be enough,” Sarah said. “I felt ‘not enough’ a lot.
“All of my friends are two-parent households. … I was always kind of embarrassed a little bit that we couldn’t have ‘those things.’ Whatever that ‘thing’ might have been,” Sarah said.
Wirfs didn’t have a relationship with his father, and still doesn’t.
“There came a point where I didn’t even really acknowledge it anymore. My ‘normal’ was just having my mom and everybody knew that,” Wirfs said.
“There were times where I think I struggled with it and I wondered why he wasn’t around and stuff like that. But then growing up, [I realized], ‘My mom’s here doing double duty. She’s doing all this work for me.’”
As an 8-year-old, Wirfs would see fathers playing catch with their sons and longed to experience that connection.
Sarah would see Tristan throwing to their fence. Then he created a makeshift wooden pallet and painted a strike zone on it to use while she was at work.
But that wasn’t enough for Sarah. She put on a glove, grabbed a bucket of balls and they went to a baseball complex a short walk from their home.
“I remember telling her, as much as she could try, ‘Try not to throw it low and outside, and if you do, and I hit it, it’s coming right back at ya,’” Wirfs said. “So we were going for a while and she threw one — it was low and outside — and oh my gosh, I just rocketed it right back. It hit her right in the shin. And she’s like, ‘I’m done.’”
Wirfs chuckled, “She walked it off. She put her glove down and went back inside and put an ice pack on it. I stayed out there and kept hitting it. She’s always been strong — physically and mentally.”
He tried the same thing when he started tackle football in the fourth grade (yes, he was always an offensive lineman).
“He’s like, ‘Block me, mom.’ And he’d want me to get down into a football stance and try to block him,” Sarah said, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, Bud.’”
He told her, “Just get down like this, mom,” Sarah said. “And I’m like, ‘OK. We’ll give it a shot. I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
She swam with them. She played tennis with them. She was always giving rides to his teammates to and from baseball games and taking them out to eat after.
“My buddies, it’s kinda cool now, they’ll tell me, ‘I know you guys didn’t have the money to do that but she still found a way to do that,” Wirfs said. “Because that’s what their parents did. She wanted to make me and my sister feel like we fit in and everything. Just to do that stuff for us was pretty amazing, looking back on it.”
At Iowa, his teammates called her “Mama Wirfs.” She always made sure to arrive one hour before the “Hawk Walk” began, so she could be in the same spot for Tristan to find her and they could share a pregame hug.
She’d cry every time he walked out of the tunnel and they showed him on the big screen. She can’t imagine how she’ll feel when she sees Tristan take the field for the first time with the Bucs, where he’ll be protecting six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady.
“It’s probably gonna be bad,” Sarah said, laughing. “I’ve already teared up just thinking about it. It hasn’t even happened yet. I think I’m gonna have to have somebody with me to take pictures and film it because I won’t be able to probably even see it. I’ll be crying.”
“Seeing her cry happy tears — she tells me after every game that she starts crying after we run out of the tunnel,” Wirfs said. “It just means the world to me.”
Wirfs’ goal now that he’s a pro is simple: “To make her feel that she was way more than enough … and to hopefully give her everything’s she’s ever wanted.
“She’s been more than enough for me and my sister. She’s done everything possible to make sure that we can be successful and that we can lead good lives.”