ANDERSON TWP., Ohio -- It was a warm reunion on a rather chilly afternoon Saturday for one local youth football player and his older brother.
Joey Gardner, 7, was preparing for the start of his game at Turpin High School around 12:30 p.m. when a familiar face he hadn’t seen in more than a year surprised him at midfield. It was his brother, Christopher, a 2007 Turpin grad who is now known in professional circles as Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Gardner of the U.S Coast Guard.
Christopher was deployed for seven months and spent six of them working at sea on board a nuclear attack submarine, the USS Helena.
But on Oct. 15, after traveling more than 50,000 nautical miles , the USS Helena docked at the pier of Norfolk Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. and Christopher prepared the trek back to Anderson Township to surprise his little brother, his biggest fan.
“He just loves his older brother so much,” said the boys’ mother, Karen Gardner, about her youngest son. “Once he saw it was his brother, Chris, once he knew it, he gave him a big hug. I’m glad it turned out the way it did.”
Saturday's family gathering on Turpin's football field wasn't the first for the family. They had a unique experience in 2006, as well.
"I was pregnant with Joey and it was Senior Night for football for my son. I had to be walking out to the track with my sons when they announced their names and I was nine months pregnant," Karen said before letting out a slight laugh.
Four days after that Joey was born and the brothers had their first chance to embrace one another.
While Karen’s emotions streamed down her face during Saturday’s reunion, she wasn’t surprised by what took place. That’s because she was the one who set it up.
“I thought, ‘Why not surprise Joey?'" she recalled.
Karen's other son, Chuck, a member of the U.S. Navy, recently returned home from a deployment so she wanted this family reunion to be every bit as memorable.
“We got to see our eldest son, Chuck, come in … and it was so touching that I thought, Christopher’s coming in with his new wife … we should do something special.”
Joey had no idea.
Suited up, preparing for his Anderson Wildcats to take on a heated rival Sycamore, the second-grader was caught up in pregame preparations. But that all changed moments before the opening coin flip when during a captains meeting at the 50-yard line the public address announcer delivered a very special message.
“I would like to introduce and reunite Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Gardener and Anderson Wildcat Joey Gardner,” he read as an outburst of applause and support poured in from the sprinkling of fans and neighbors in the stands.
While the field was littered with pint-sized football players, coaches and referees ready to play football, the midfield area cleared as Joey draped himself around Christopher who hoisted him into the air as though he'd already won the game.
When you stop to think about it, he did.
You can see photos from the return of the USS Helena at the following link: www.navytimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/gallery?Avis=M6&Dato=20131015&Kategori=NEWS&Lopenr=310150030&Ref=PH
You can learn more about the USS Helena's deployment at the following link: www.wavy.com/web/wavy/military/uss-helena-returns-to-norfolk-oct-15