PORTLAND, Ore. — Cooper Sprunk's mustache didn't steal the show on Saturday, but rather, that honor went to Sprunk's 19 elementary school pen pals from Gerber, California.

The excited group of fourth and fifth graders proudly donned their fake black mustaches provided by the M Store in honor of their idol, role model and good friend. 

"Nice mustaches," Sprunk said to them after the game. "You guys look great! I love them!" 

After Montana's 45-33 win over Portland State, Sprunk spent time with his pen pals taking oodles of pictures, autographing everything from t-shirts to battery packs and even taking on them on in a 40-yard race. 

"This is better than meeting the president for them," Gerber Elementary School teacher Keri Spengler said. "When we were getting ready, one of the girls said, 'I get to meet my first star.' He is everything to them." 

Spengler — the teacher of Sprunk's third-grade pen pals — has known Sprunk since he took over the pen pal program with her students three years ago.

She hasn't seen anything like this in her 11 years of teaching, saying it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

During the game, Sprunk's pen pals, their chaperones and representatives from the Sentinel Kiwanis club sat right behind the Montana bench, holding signs, wearing their mustaches and cheering on their adopted team.

"I saw the mustaches and the signs during the game and pregame and I was like, 'This is awesome,'" Sprunk said. "That was a huge cheering section. It was super cool. I'm super happy to have them all out here. They started cheering my name when I was coming out. That was super cool to hear."

***

But this trip was about more than just seeing Sprunk.

It was about bigger things and achieving their biggest dreams. 

"Actually being here is overwhelming," Spengler said. "It's emotional. And just watching the kids, I feel so lucky. These kids are the recipients. It feels fantastic. It's surreal. I feel like I'm in a movie. Honestly, it's amazing."

The entire trip revolved around seeing a university. For some of the students, it was their first time out of California. For others, it was their first time leaving their hometown of Gerber. 

Gerber Elementary, the school Sprunk's pen pals attend, 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.

Going on a guided tour of Portland State helped solidify NEU's mission and showed the students, rather than tell them, about the opportunities that a college education affords. 

"It all comes back to education," said Julie Matlock, a parent of one of Sprunk's pen pals. "They know that they're going to go far knowing that. Are they gonna play football or are they gonna be in business? They don't know, but they are going to go to college. They're all going to have the opportunity to go to college."

Spengler was incredibly excited to see her students have the experience of visiting Portland State.

Especially since it's far from home.

"More than anything else it's important, letting them see a college campus, letting them see a world outside of where we live," Spengler said. "Our school's in a cow pasture. There's nothing there. Showing them if you go to school and if you work hard like Cooper, this is what's out there for you. That's the big picture.

"I think it's super powerful for them to see a college and see what's out there for them. I hope, I really, really hope there's a couple of kids here that this is what does it for them, so they will go somewhere instead of staying in Gerber. This could be the difference."

***

For Michele Wheeler, the Lieutenant Governor of the Western Region of Kiwanis Montana, the trip coming together was "an amazing experience."

Wheeler spearheaded the fundraising efforts for everything to come together when she heard about Sprunk's pen pal program. She said discussions and preliminary work began six months ago, but much of it came together within the past three weeks. 

"I was just a conduit," Wheeler said. "It kinda happened in spite of me. The community responded, (media) got the word out for us and the community in Montana, the community in Missoula, Kiwanis, California Kiwanis clubs stepped up and when I needed something, somebody brought it to me.

"People from Missoula, Montana, reached out to these kids. And that message that they're important to people they'll never meet, (people) cared enough to make this happen, you can feel how that's opened their hearts and broadened their vision of the world."

The first part of making the trip work, Wheeler said, was ensuring the kids had a way to get from Gerber to Portland — a seven hour ride. 

"I had to make sure they had a way to get here," Wheeler said. 

So she found a bus. 

After arranging transportation, then Wheeler went to work on the funding. 

"We went at it a couple different ways," Wheeler said. "Through GoFundMe, word of mouth in Missoula always works and through our Kiwanis network."

Dozens of businesses, organizations and people chipped in. So many people came together that Wheeler couldn't list off every name. 

"My mind is full," Wheeler said, holding back tears. "I don't know what to say. It's the power of the people. This community outreach has reminded me that all the news we hear isn't necessarily reflective of people next door. There's so many good people out there. There's nothing like looking at the face of a kid and seeing the smiles and respect they have for Cooper. It shines in their eyes. What's it meant to me? I can't find the words."

Sprunk is the main reason why everything came together. And it all started with the first letter. It's since spiraled into something that no one could have envisioned.

He's helped his pen pals deal with plenty of things from bullying to tough situations at home to inspiring them to further their education.

"Being a strong male role model, they listen to him in a different way," Spengler said. "It's been a serious blessing for us. He's such a great person. You can tell he has a big heart."

That big, caring heart of his has inspired dozens of elementary school children that wouldn't have otherwise had this experience. 

For that, their parents are grateful. 

"This solidifies my child's decision to be a Grizzly, because of Cooper," said Carrie Patterson, a parent of one of Sprunk's pen pals. "For three years, that's all he's talked about. He doesn't know what he wants to do, doesn't care, but he's going to be a Grizzly because Cooper's a Grizzly. 

"His dedication has made the whole No Excuses University process real for these kids and brought it to life. It's because of Cooper that our kids are so excited and got Montana so excited, which got everybody else so excited. That's why we're here today is because of his dedication to our kids to make sure they feel about education how he does."

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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