It was the most difficult time in Matt Otwinowski's young life.
The Crichfield Elementary School fourth grader had just lost his father, turning his world upside down.
"I had a student teacher with me the year that Matt was in my class," Crichfield teacher Marty Briggs said. "I was able to take Matt out of the classroom and walk with him in the hallway, and I saw all of those character traits exhibited as we walked and talked. The walks continued, and Matt and I continued our discussions. I was amazed at his strength and maturity."
Over a decade later, Briggs' influence remains strong on the boy who is now a grown man, playing football for the University of Buffalo. During the telecast of Saturday's Bulls game with Temple, a video clip was aired of Otwinowski, a senior linebacker, talking about how important Briggs was and is to him.
"My dad had passed away, and he took a lot of extra time after class to talk to me and really help me and my brother during the grieving process," Otwinowski said in the video. "I give him a lot of credit. I wouldn't be where I'm at in my life without him, so I really thank him for that."
Matt’s mother, Shelly, called Briggs on Friday night and told him she had just talked to Matt after he had filmed the segment.
"I was blown away by the whole idea of this, but it became a reality when I saw it actually aired on ESPN," Briggs said. "Teachers are constantly going above and beyond to meet the needs of their students, but it’s rare that we ever really hear back from our students later in life. This was amazing, and it was an honor. This just goes to show all of us in education that what we do and say is so very important. Although we may never hear about it, our influence can be long-lasting."
A two-time Academic All-Mid American Conference selection, Otwinowski is a 2019 American Football Coaches Associarton Allstate Good Works Team and Wuerffel Trophy nominee. During the off-season, he donated stem cells through the Be The Match program that helped save a man's life.
"I haven’t kept up as much as I’d like, but I do try to see how he is doing from time to time. It’s not hard to find statistics, videos, or articles about Matthew Otwinowski," Briggs said. "I became very close to the family during his time in fourth grade, and I still feel close to all of them whether or not I’m in contact. I am so very proud of Matt today, but I was proud of him in fourth grade, too. As a fourth grader, he showed integrity, honesty, humility, empathy, faith, responsibility, and a great work ethic. He set a goal as a fourth grader to graduate high school with a 4.0 and to get a sports scholarship to help his family out financially."
None of what Otwinowski has done comes as a surprise to Briggs.
"He’s still exhibiting these traits as he volunteers today with sports camps, with children in poverty, and with speaking engagements for young athletes," Briggs said. "He is all about his faith. He attends church weekly and has devotions before football games. It has kept him moving forward, and he shares that faith with others."
While Otwinowski is a deeply spiritual person, Briggs also remembers him for his great sense of humor, recalling the story of when he asked him to give a few students a retake of a spelling test.
"He would give spelling sentences about Mr. Briggs doing ridiculous things, and he’d just watch out of the corner of his eye to see if I heard it," Briggs said. "He found out that I hate mayonnaise, so he brought me a cupcake that looked like it had white icing. The “icing” was actually mayonnaise."
The two saw each other at a banquet during Otwinowski's senior year at La Porte High School, and Briggs brought one of the old reading workbooks that had been used eight years prior.
"I remember it as being a workbook that students didn’t quite enjoy," Briggs said. "I told him that it wasn’t quite finished, and he needed to finish it before he could officially graduate. He laughed, and he knew it was just another one of our jokes."
Briggs in his 41st year of teaching between Riley and Crichfield. At a time when the education profession is dealing with challenges it's never faced before, he is deeply appreciative of Otwinowski's pick-me-up.
"Matt thanked me on national television for all I have done," Briggs said. "I thank him for being the role model that he is today and for reminding teachers that our jobs are so important."
Buffalo is 2-2 entering MAC play, and Otwinowski is third on the team in tackles with 21.