MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Growing up as a child with special needs, Nick Bertsch didn’t get invited to birthday parties or sleepovers. Making friends was tough, yet that didn’t stop him from becoming a dear friend to one of TV’s most iconic characters: Big Bird.

Nick, from Maple Grove, has cerebral palsy. He’s 19-years-old now, but he’s loved his yellow-feathered friend nearly all his life.

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“This kid is a walking encyclopedia of all things Big Bird, Sesame Street,” said his mom, Tina Herbert. “He can tell you all names behind the puppets, who does everybody’s voice, the dates they were born, the dates they started on the show. He knows episode numbers. He’s a walking encyclopedia.”

Currently, Nick holds the title of “Big Bird’s Biggest Fan.” It’s cemented in a new documentary on the life of the puppeteer who plays the 8-foot-tall bird. It’s called “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.” While Nick doesn’t appear in the movie itself, he is in a DVD extra all about his relationship with Spinney.

In the video, which you can watch above, it explains how a simple letter led to a life-changing event. Nick and his mom wrote to Sesame Street a few years back, and they got a packet of drawings from Spinney, who’s also an artist. He told the two that they needed to see Sesame Street in person.

Since that first meeting four years ago, Nick and Spinney have kept in touch over the phone. It’s a friendship Nick cherishes, as it brings him hope and joy when he needs it most.

“Nick’s had to have some surgeries,” his mom said. “He’s had back surgery, and he’s had some pretty horrendous leg surgeries, and so I would kind of use the relationship or phone calls with Caroll as a way to cheer him up.”

The teenager has traveled to New York three times now to see his 8-foot-tall pal. Most recently, he went to the premiere of “I Am Big Bird.” Guess where he and his mom sat? Right next to Spinney.

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Herbert said her son was “in heaven.”

“He sees every YouTube clip. Everything that’s ever been written about Caroll,” she said. “So this was an opportunity for him to see new things about Caroll and their home videos, stuff he didn’t know and hadn’t seen before.”

Herbert also noted that Caroll, as it shows in the film, has the ability to tap into past emotions, to feel them raw again. There’s a section in the movie about the death of Jim Henson, with moving footage of Big Bird singing “It Ain’t Easy Being Green” at Henson’s funeral.

“Caroll was openly weeping during the documentary watching that,” Herbert said. “It was like he was experiencing all that, and reliving those feelings all over again. It was just so amazing to me. It was so surreal to just watch that unfold.”

When the documentary is not praising Spinney’s skill as a puppeteer, it focuses on his tough childhood and how it shaped him to be comfortable in his own shoes and a friend to all.

“I don’t think there’s any other puppeteer that could bring the level of compassion that Caroll brings to Big Bird,” Herbert said. “He had a rougher childhood, he was bullied, and there’s that level of compassion that he brings from being treated that way as a child. He brings that into Big Bird, that understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

Nick and his mom were interviewed for the documentary, but in the end, filmmakers Dave LaMittina and Chad N. Walker didn’t quite have room for Nick’s story in the final cut That’s why Nick as his special place in the coming DVD.

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“I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story” opens Friday at the St. Anthony Main Theatre.

Jonathon Sharp