GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Gwen Day misled her four children into believing they won a trip to the BCS championship game.
She had a good reason.
They weren’t on the field to see Auburn or Oregon. Instead, those kids soon realized they were there to see Staff Sgt. Alton Day -- their father, who has been deployed to Iraq for nearly a year. Day, who is from Elizabeth, N.C., was stationed at Fort Benning.
The Days were one of four families that got a surprise reunion with a deployed family member before the BCS title game, amid a backdrop teeming with national pride. Many in the crowd chanted “U-S-A” during the ceremony, a bald eagle soared during the singing of the national anthem and there was an emotional moment of silence for victims of the weekend assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.
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“Words can’t really explain,” Alton Day said, “or do the experience justice.”
He was one of the servicemen who participated in a flag football game in Iraq last month with the likes of Bobby Bowden, Gene Stallings, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Rodney Peete and others, and his four children -- all wearing replicas of the blue jersey he donned for the contest -- saw highlights of that game on the scoreboard a few minutes before Auburn and Oregon kicked off.
Then they saw their dad, in person. Tears flowed freely.
“Utter disbelief,” Gwen Day said in a phone interview. “There’s no other words to describe it. I didn’t even think about how big this is going to be. I don’t know if you realize that this is one of the most precious moments for military families, to be reunited with a loved one they have not seen, and in our case it’s been eight months.”
Day received a a 15-day leave from the Department of Defense for the reunion, arranged by Tostitos and the USO, the two entities that arranged the game in Iraq. Two other Army soldiers, Spc. Danyul Davis *Houston) and Sgt. Louis Davis (Ft. Bragg, N.C.), were honored before the game, as was Naval Petty Officer First Class Terry Eady (Ocilla, Ga.).
The wives of the servicemen and some other family members were in on the secret.
The eight children reunited with their dads on Monday night had no advance knowledge.
“Ain’t it something,” Bowden said. “It’s something you just don’t forget.”
Bowden and the other retired coaches and players traveled to Iraq in December for a series of events with servicemen, including the game -- a bowl game of sorts, played on a dusty, rocky field and surrounded by reminders of war.
No one minded.
“It’s the safest I’ve ever felt in my life,” said Antonio Freeman, the former Green Bay Packers receiver who was one of the celebrity players on the trip.
“And I had to go all the way over to Iraq, on a base, to feel that way. I knew the guys I was surrounded by, who were protecting me, were focused. As a country, I know we appreciate it.”
Officials from Tostitos came up with the idea last year when trying to tie bowl season into some sort of tribute to soldiers. The USO benefits from getting exposure during prime time of a Bowl Championship Series game.
“It was incredible seeing our first big reunion happen,” said Justin Lambeth, the vice president of marketing for Tostitos, which is aiming to facilitate more military reunions in the coming months.
The four servicemen emerged from a banner, hidden from view of their families until the last possible second, before running onto the field.
“It was amazing,” Alton Day said. “I think about my family each and every day I’m away from them. They give me a purpose and it’s incredible to have them to come back to. They’re my reason I want to make this world a safer place.”
-- Kevin Price contributed to this report