MISSOULA — Offensive linemen aren't the flashiest players on the gridiron. 

They're typically taken for granted and when they draw attention, it's never for a good reason. 

But to a gaggle of elementary school kids from Gerber, California, the position of Montana's starting center Cooper Sprunk doesn't matter. He's their role model. 

For the past three years, Sprunk's written back and forth with elementary school kids as their pen pal, answering everything from silly questions about if he has a helicopter to giving them life advice. 

"They're little kids who just like to look up to me," Sprunk said. "I enjoy it just as much as they do."

He's been to Gerber to hang out for a day, but this weekend will go a step further. 

Four weeks ago, Sentinel Kiwanis launched a fundraising effort to get Sprunk's pen pals to the Grizzlies' game against Portland State. It was an expensive effort — nearly $8,000 needed to be raised.

On Friday, Sept. 22, Sprunk found out that thanks to the generosity of others, 19 of his pen pals will be making the seven-hour bus trip to Portland, Oregon, this weekend. 

"Just in time," Sprunk said. "It means a ton that they'll be able to watch me play, just because we've been talking about it for three years now.

"Them coming to the Portland game will be an awesome experience."

But seeing their idol play isn't the entire reason for the trip, though it is a nice bonus. 

Gerber Elementary is a school in the No Excuses University program, meaning schools in underprivileged areas partner with a university — in this case, Montana — to promote the notion that anyone, regardless of background, can go to college to further their education. 

While in Portland, the students will take a tour of Portland State to learn about college.

"This means a lot," Sprunk said of everything coming together. "They get to visit a college. They get to see that there's school past elementary school, (it'll) encourage them to keep going to school."

***

Sprunk's philanthropic mentality comes from his upbringing. 

His father, Eric, donates his money and time to numerous organizations around the country — including the University of Montana, his alma mater. 

The Student-Athlete Academic Center at the university is named after Eric and Blair, Cooper's step-mother, in honor of the $1 million donation they made back in 2014. 

"My dad always told me, 'To whom much is given, much is expected,' " Cooper said. "Giving back to the community is really important, meaningful stuff." 

That's why when Montana played Washington in Seattle in early September, rather than go on a tour of Husky Stadium, Sprunk continued to give back and went to Seattle Children's Hospital with other leaders on the team to visit Troy Ross, a sick 3-year-old boy from Great Falls. 

In addition to his father's wisdom, Sprunk went to a high school that mandated community service hours.

While at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, he completed approximately 100 service hours, 65 of which came during his junior and senior years. 

"(At) my high school, the motto is, 'Men and women for others,' so even then we had to do service hours whenever we could," Sprunk said. 

Sprunk's commitment to the community rubs off on not only the children he exchanges letters with, but with those within the Griz football community as well.

Montana head coach Bob Stitt is impressed with how much Sprunk gives. 

"You have to be selfless in team sports, especially in football and do your role," Stitt said. "What he's doing, college athletes are busy. They're in school and we ask so much of them as a football player and the outside stuff, especially in Missoula. Our players are asked to do a lot of different stuff. For him to take the time is a special thing and it says a lot about him."

***

Sprunk's journey to Washington-Grizzly Stadium wasn't like many of his teammates'. 

Sprunk, a tight end in high school, wasn't recruited during his playing days.

Up until his junior season of high school, he preferred basketball to football. 

But two days after his Crusaders lost in the Oregon 6A state football semifinals, he received a call from Montana, saying they wanted him to try out for the team. 

"I never thought playing football in college was a possibility," Sprunk said. "Then Montana called two days after my senior season ended. I was like, 'This could actually happen.' It's just been a great journey. It's been awesome."

Before Montana called and asked him to walk on, Sprunk applied to the school anyway, as well as to the University of Washington and Boise State. He was accepted to Boise State and Montana. 

"I was talking about coming here probably more than anywhere else," Sprunk said. "Once Montana talked to me about football, I was like, 'Yeah. I gotta come here.' Both my parents went here. They grew up here. I've gone to Polson every summer basically since I've been born. This is the place for me."

Sprunk walked on as a tight end and redshirted his first year and played in nine games his redshirt freshman season. He didn't record any catches though, and was primarily used as a blocking tight end. 

After the 2014 season, then-Montana coach Mick Delaney retired and Stitt was hired. 

When Stitt took over for the Griz, Sprunk knew he'd have to change positions, since Stitt's offenses don't use tight ends. 

"I kinda knew that when Stitt came in that I was gonna have to change positions, just because I wasn't very fast on my feet as a tight end," Sprunk said. "I was happy they switched me because (offensive line coach Chad) Germer's been a great help for me, all the guys before me. Devon Dietrich, McCauley (Todd), they all helped me out a ton. It's been an absolute blast putting on the weight, working with the guys, just being an O-Lineman has been an awesome lifestyle for me."

Sprunk didn't just want to switch positions and be good for depth. He wanted to make an impact. He wanted to start.

"He switched positions right when I got here," Germer said. "He bought in 100 percent. He wasn't like, 'Yeah, I'll try it.' He wanted not just to become an offensive lineman but be a good one and be a starter.

"He had high goals that even caught me a little by surprise, to be honest with you. When he made the move, he wasn't just gonna try it out. He really wanted to be really good at it."

During that 2015 season, Sprunk saw time in four games on the line. But the next season, Sprunk was thrown into the starting lineup. 

Ben Weyer, the senior starting center, left the game against St. Francis last season due to a leg injury. The injury was season-ending. 

When Weyer went down in the third quarter, Sprunk was called upon to take over. He's started ever since. 

"He's really good, obviously," fellow senior offensive lineman Robert Luke said of Sprunk. "He's a two year starter and he obviously knows what he's doing. In the center position, you gotta have a lot of leadership."

Luke knows what it takes. He filled in at center when Weyer went down with a knee injury in 2015.

"It's kinda been a dream come true, actually,” Sprunk said. “ … Switching to center was definitely the best move I could have made.”

With his senior season a quarter of the way finished, Sprunk's feeling a little nostalgic. 

"It's kinda weird to think out that my first year was five years ago," Sprunk said. "It still feels like it was yesterday. My O-line coach in high school would always say stop and smell the roses and I feel like I've been trying to do a good job of that ... and realize how fortunate we all are to be out here playing."

Amie Just covers Griz football for the Missoulian, among other things. Follow her on Twitter @Amie_Just or email her at Amie.Just@406mtsports.com.

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