GREENSBORO — Bennett Warren, 4, wanted two things for his birthday: a dinosaur and his dad home. Mom made sure the first one happened. The Greensboro Swarm helped make the second (and more important) wish come true.
Army National Guard Sgt. Jay Warren, 28, was reunited with his family on Saturday night in the Greensboro Coliseum Complex's Fieldhouse after a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
During a break in the Swarm's game against the Erie BayHawks, an announcer invited Warren's wife, Taylor, Bennett and sister Millie to the center of the court for a birthday surprise for Bennett, who turned 4 last week.
Bennett and Millie covered their eyes and the announcer counted down — along with a sellout crowd of 2,131.
At zero, the children opened their eyes and saw ... their dad. He was standing under a basket on the other side of the court.
Bennett raced down and jumped into his father's arms.
"Hi, Daddy," Bennett said as he hugged his father.
The scene may have seemed surreal, but the setting made sense. The Warrens have been coming to Swarm games for two years. Taylor's mom works at the Marriott hotel near Piedmont Triad International Airport and one of her perks is Swarm tickets.
"It's kind of become our thing," said Warren, clad in fatigues. "Bennett was scared of Sgt. Swarm, the mascot, at first, but now he fist bumps him."
Warren, an avionics technician, was deployed to Kandahar — Afghanistan's second-largest city — with a battalion based in Raleigh. His unit left North Carolina in April 2018 and trained in Texas before trekking across the globe.
That was nine, long months ago.
The family sent care packages to Warren. He would send pictures of Bennett's "Lightning McQueen" toy car at various locations around Afghanistan. When time and bandwidth permitted, the family would video chat.
But nothing compares to having them in your arms.
"It's amazing that this could all come together," Taylor said.
It was actually sent into motion a month ago when Taylor and the children attended a game between the Swarm and the Canton Charge. After the game, guard Dwayne Bacon handed a pair of his shoes to Bennett.
A stunned Taylor took pictures of Bennett and Millie and posted them on Facebook and tagged the Swarm, explaining how that act of kindness gave the kids something uplifting to talk about instead of focusing on missing their dad.
That started a dialogue between the team's promotions staff and the Warrens. Which led to Saturday night's reunion.
After the hugs, tears and photos, the Warrens headed back to their courtside seats to watch the rest of the game.
Bennett turned to his dad and asked, "Daddy, can you sit next to me?"
"Yeah, son. I sure will."