(NEW YORK) — When 10-year-old Noah Ricafrente and his 8-year-old brother, Elijah, got tickets to the Eastern Carolina University football game with the rest of their Pop Warner football team, it was a big deal.
When the two brothers from Cherry Point, N.C., got to go onto the field during halftime for a contest to try out their football skills, it was an even bigger deal.
When their father, Josh Ricafrente, a gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, walked out onto the stadium’s football field, it was the surprise of their lives.
Ricafrente, a 12-year service veteran, had been deployed in Afghanistan for the past five months, missing his sons’ entire football season playing for the local Craven Bearcats. When he heard from his wife, Jenie, that his sons would be going to Eastern Carolina’s Nov. 3 game with their team, he got an idea.
“I was talking to my wife and said it’d be cool if I could surprise the kids at the ECU game,” Ricafrente told ABC News on Friday.
In a small-world connection, one of the boys’ Pop Warner coaches knew someone at the university and, just like that, Ricafrente’s dream turned into reality.
“My wife did all of the communicating until I got back, and then they just told me where I needed to be,” he said. “I just thought it was going to be fun to do, but ECU made it reality.”
Noah, who was 9-months-old when his father deployed the first time, and Elijah, who wasn’t even born then, thought their dad would be returning home next month, in time for the holidays.
Instead, they watched their dad on the stadium’s big screen in a taped message right before the halftime contest began and then saw him ”live” just moments after.
“You can see Noah’s face,” Ricafrente said, referring to the video of the moment that was posted on Welcomehomeblog.com and has quickly gone viral. “He was surprised, excited, overwhelmed.”
“Everybody started crying,” he said of the crowd in the stands. “Everybody screamed, and I heard in the background they were chanting USA, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
Ricafrente said his sons were happy to have their dad back home, but none of them can believe the attention they’ve received since the surprise homecoming.
“Even at school people come up to them to say that they saw it and it was cool, and they’re glad their dad is back,” Ricafrente said. “I think it’s amazing. That’s something they’ll never forget.”
Ricafrente said he has not yet received any indication that he’ll be deployed a third time but, as a Marine, he stands ready.
“We’re U.S. military so whenever we need to, we do what we do,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ray Sanchez, CNN Newswire
Chuck Johnston, CNN Newswire