Like good things in life often do, Cooper Sprunk’s pen-pal relationship with Keri Spengler’s class of youngsters at Gerber Elementary in Northern California farm country came to an end in the spring.
The former Griz football O-Lineman had earned his degree from the University of Montana’s School of Business and moved from Missoula to Los Angeles to begin a career in the sports apparel industry.
And with his graduation, that chapter of Sprunk’s life – which had inspired not only the Gerber community but all of Griz nation to rally around this school of disadvantaged kids and encourage them to work toward a future in college as part of the No Excuses University program – came to a close.
NEU schools adopt a university as a part of the curriculum. In return, a representative from the university selects a class to promote the idea that anyone can obtain a college education.
During that time, Sprunk’s pen-pal relationship had blossomed from humble beginnings exchanging letters and the occasional Skype call, to an in-person visit from their new hero, to a full-fledged fundraising campaign that sent the kids to see him and the Griz play in Portland.
The pen-pal relationship that started nearly three years ago was an overwhelming success, and one that everyone involved – from the kids to parents, to Missoula’s Sentinel Kiwanis Club – wanted to see live on following Sprunk’s eventual graduation.
Enter junior linebacker Dante Olson, one of Montana’s brightest up-and-coming stars both on the field and in the classroom as a two-time winner of the Hauck Family Special Teams Player of the Year and a two-time Academic All-Big Sky selection.
“It was sad when Cooper was graduating because I thought this was all going to come to an end,” said Spengler. “But he wanted it to keep going as well and said he’d keep an eye out. Then he kept saying Dante is your man, Dante is your man, and he was right.”
“I thought he’d be the perfect guy,” said Sprunk. “He and Keri have the same morals, I knew he and his family would enjoy it, he’s going to be a great player, and he’s the nicest guy ever too. So, I reached out.”
With a simple text message, the torch of a new tradition in Griz football had been passed to the next generation, with Olson jumping at the opportunity to serve as a mentor to Spengler’s class of Griz fans.
“Cooper texted me one day out of the blue and said ‘hey man, I have this pen-pal thing for you that’s really cool. It was a great experience for me, and I think you’d be a good fit for it,'” said Olson.
“I saw the impact he had on those kids last year. I love dealing with little kids. I have a couple nieces and nephews, and I’ve always enjoyed reaching out and hanging out with the little guys. So, it sounded like a great opportunity.”
The transition didn’t take long, with the class taking to Olson just as keenly as the previous class did to Sprunk. And after trading letters and a few phone calls, the relationship took off, and plans were hatched to have Olson come for a visit.
“Me being sad about Cooper graduating was for nothing, because Dante is amazing,” said Spengler. “He’s a different person than Cooper, but very genuine and kind, and I think his heart is really in it.”
“I figured I chose the right guy when he and his family went down there not long after I asked him to do it, so I’m really happy he’s able to embrace it right away and hop on the pen-pal train,” said Sprunk.
“I loved the experience so much, I’m happy it’s not just a three-year deal, and it’s over. That definitely could have been a possibility. It makes me feel happy that Dante actually wanted to do this too. It says a lot about his character,” he added.
After the spring semester had wrapped up in Missoula and with two weeks off before summer football training began, Olson and his parents made the three-hour trip down I-5 from his hometown of Medford, Oregon, to make his first visit to Gerber.
It couldn’t have gone any better.
Like Sprunk, Olson was treated like a celebrity from the moment he walked through the doors. After three years, the students know the Griz, and maroon and silver decorations still adorn the school’s hallways.
“They were at recess when I came in, and they immediately said ‘Oh my gosh that’s Dante!’, and came up and started giving me hugs, which was awesome,” said Olson, whose first order of business was to teach them a game of “Sharks and Minnows” on the playground.
After recess, Olson followed the kids into Spengler’s classroom, where the kids were studying plants. He also got to lead them in one of (Grizzly Strength and Conditioning Coach) Matt Nicholson‘s warm-up routines in PE class. Nothing too structured, just getting to know the kids, reading with them, and answering questions.
But the highlight of the day came later when Olson stepped into the gym and addressed the entire school in a pair of assemblies, where he imparted some life lessons that have taken him from Medford to Missoula and beyond.
“I shared something I’ve always done in my life, and that’s set goals. Have an overarching goal like becoming a professional football player or going to college and get a degree. Big picture goals,” said Olson. “Then along the way have everyday goals or a year-long goal. Maybe pick out three goals like, I want this GPA, I want to volunteer at something, or I want to be the best on my soccer team.
“That’s something they can see right now, and it will eventually help them reach their ultimate goal of going to University or whatever they choose. That’s something I tried to present to them in a way they would understand.”
Getting up and speaking in front of an entire school is something that might make even the toughest football player a little weak in the knees, but for Spengler, Olson was a natural.
“I thought I was throwing him to the wolves, but he did wonderfully,” she said.
“He talked to them about goal setting and about taking school seriously because if you mess around now and you’ll get behind in high school and you’ll never make it in college. He also talked a bit about bullying, just some great life messages.
“We’ve never had anyone come to our school and do that, so it was huge, and he did a great job too.”
After hours spent doing his part to stress the importance of school, goals, and working to be good people, it was only on the drive home when Olson realized what he had learned that day.
“Those kids have so much energy, joy, and love – they tired me out. But we drove through town – it’s a tiny, four-block town, with a lot of boarded up windows – It was humbling, but I would never have guessed that because of the energy and joy they have.
“It’s a reality for them, where they live, but it was really inspiring to compare what little they have with how they live. They taught me the importance of, it’s not what you have it’s how you look at life.”
Olson, a redshirt-junior with the Griz, will now carry on the pen-pal relationship with his new friends over the next two seasons, exchanging letters, calls, and potential visits whenever possible.
Like Sprunk’s pen-pals before, plans are already in the works to send Dante’s class to see a live Griz game in 2019, when UM makes a pair of trips to California to take on Sacramento State and UC Davis.