Ben Nix didn’t care if he cried in front of a gym filled with hundreds of fans. Neither did his sister, Morgan.
All that mattered is they had the chance to hug their dad as tight as possible.
Col. Delton Nix surprised his children Tuesday night at Carlisle High School during halftime of the Carlisle boys basketball game against State College — a rousing 54-39 upset victory on senior night, no less — when he returned home after serving seven months in Afghanistan.
It was straight out of every viral video of the social media era, a dream of Morgan’s for years.
“I’ve always wanted him to come home and surprise us,” she said. “And he tried to do it once before, a long time ago, but it didn’t work because we had an early release [from school] that day. So we were already home, so it didn’t work. … It was really exciting and shocking, and I was shaking a lot.”
“Yeah, you watch the videos, you see kids cry and stuff,” Ben said. “At first I didn’t recognize him because ... I’m not trying to brag because I’ve gotten this award before and stuff, and so I was like, ‘They’re giving me another one.’ And then I saw him walk through the door and it took me a second. And I was trying to hold it back, but I just teared up right away.”
The reunion took nearly two months to plan, Delton and his wife, Christie, said after the game. The pair intended to surprise their kids but needed to settle on a date.
Delton will return to Afghanistan after 15 days to complete the last five months of his tour as a chief information technology officer at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, for the Resolute Support mission. He wanted to time his return home so he could watch a few of Ben’s final games as a senior and a few of Morgan’s singing recitals.
But it was “happenstance” that the U.S. Army recruiting office planned an award presentation on the same night, Delton said. It was also the Thundering Herd’s senior night, creating a perfect storm for the reunion.
School officials cut the halftime warmups short for a quick ceremony for Ben to receive a plaque from the U.S. Army. As Ben stood in the center of the Gene Evans Gymnasium floor, Delton appeared through the gymnasium doors carrying the plaque.
Ben and Morgan both took a few seconds to realize what was going on. Ben strode over and gave his dad an emotional embrace. Morgan sprinted out of the stands seconds later and latched onto her father.
“Of course it’s awesome,” Delton said. “Never imagined I’d be the one doing the homecoming in that fashion. Great opportunity to be able to surprise my kids.”
“He’s a little skinnier, so,” Morgan said, drawing laughs from the family, “it took kind of a little while [to recognize him].”
The original plan was for Delton to arrive in time to walk Ben onto the court with the rest of the family for the pregame senior night festivities, Delton and Christie said.
But his flight was scheduled to arrive at 6:45 p.m., making it nearly impossible without an early landing. A friend of Christie’s picked Delton up and drove him straight to the game. Delton arrived right at tipoff and waited in a room out of sight of anyone who could potentially blow his cover.
Christie said it was difficult keeping the surprise, especially from her persistent daughter.
“Hard, hard,” she said of the challenge. “And I told her, ‘You can’t ask me questions, I don’t know anything.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, when do you think he’s gonna be home?’”
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Delton said he has served in the U.S. Army for 26 years, 23 of them as an officer. The family estimates they’ve lived in 11 places and have lived in Carlisle for two years after Delton started attending the U.S. Army War College.
The boys basketball booster club helped organize the homecoming surprise, and Herd head coach Andre Anderson knew for a while. He informed his coaching staff before tipoff, but not the players. Many students in the Carlisle Crazies student section knew, but all of them kept the secret from Morgan.
“I think most of the student section was crying,” Christie said.
Father and son
All of it coalesced into a nearly perfect night for Ben, who wound up unexpectedly (to him) being the center of attention.
The senior played football much of his life and spent his two years at Carlisle as a running back and linebacker.
Father and son said they missed out on their usual bonding time during football season. They said they enjoy watching games together, and Delton — who Ben called a “football mastermind” — often predicts plays during the broadcasts.
“We used to sit down after every game [I played], just talk through it — what happened, what went down, what to work on, what moves you could put on here or here,” Ben said. “It is a little hard. But there’s some technology now. … But it’s not quite the same.”
Ben only joined the Herd basketball team this season after his classmates recruited him heavily, Anderson said. Anderson raved about Ben’s improvement after Tuesday’s game; Ben was named a starter in the beginning of the season and has been a “hustle” guy all season, averaging nearly 3 points a game.
“I can tell you, from start to finish, I think he’s the one that grew the most [this year],” Anderson said. “I thought he had the most growth over the year, never stops playing hard, and the kid just will do anything for you.”
“That’s usually my game,” Ben said. “I’m not usually scoring a lot of points, I’m just usually doing the little things or making the hustle plays. And that’s what [dad] knows me for.”
Ben had a bucket and two turnovers in the first half Tuesday night, the latter fact something he was thankful his dad didn’t see.
But with Delton sitting a few rows up at midcourt after halftime, Ben played on “autopilot” and found another gear.
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He made a few of his trademark hustle plays but also knocked down two midrange jumpers and a daring left-handed underhand finger roll in traffic.
“I was still out there to win,” he said. “I probably took a few more shots than I [normally would].”
At the end of the win he had eight points, three rebounds, an assist and a steal.
“People would ask me, ‘Do you think it’s gonna upset Ben?’” Christie said. “Like, if he sees him, is it gonna shake him up? And I said, ‘Nope, he’ll play better. He’ll play better knowing his dad’s there.’”