The story behind the military reunion

After five months deployed in Afganistan, Sgt. Josua Ricafrente surprised his kids during the last home football game. -Contributed by Meghan Heinchon

Elijah and Noah Ricafrente never saw what was coming when they came to ECU for the home game against Houston. After being invited to attend the game with their Pop Warner youth football team, the boys were excited to be chosen to participate in the Power-Aid toss during halftime.

Noah and his brother stood in awe at the proud Pirate fans, wishing their father could share that moment. Little did they know that the biggest surprise of all was soon to arrive.

“The oldest boy looked at one of my assistants and said, ‘My dad would love this crowd. I wish he was here,’” said Scott Wetherbee, assistant athletics director for marketing and ticket operations.

Noah and Elijah’s father, Sgt. Joshua Ricafrente, had been deployed in Afghanistan for the past five months. When Ricafrente found out he was coming home early, the plan to surprise his sons was set in motion.

“I was set to come home about a week or so earlier. I spoke to their Pop Warner football coach,” said Ricafrente. “I thought that it would be cool if we could set something up and surprise them at the game.”

When he arrived home, Joshua Ricafrente’s family and friends were all in on how they were going to surprise his sons.

“I got home Friday afternoon and they didn’t know I was here,” said Ricafrente. “The boys had went to a sleep over and were just going to play football with their friends and meet their mother at the game.”

When game day arrived, Ricafrente came to campus to prepare for the set-up.

“I met with Scott, and that’s when we started planning everything and made the video. I got to hang out with him and he introduced me to a lot of people at ECU,” said Ricafrente. “Just to stop the anticipation because I was excited. I hadn’t seen them for a while and I just wanted to see them.”

“We shot the video right here in my office and we used this older camera,” said Wetherbee.

While waiting for halftime, Wetherbee showed Ricafrente the ins and outs of what happens behind the scenes of a Pirate football game.

“I didn’t realize that much coordination went into a football game,” said Ricafrente. “During the first quarter, Scott handed me the binoculars, and said, ‘Why don’t you see if you can find them?’” said Ricafrente. “I think he could tell I just wanted to see them and hug them already.”

With eight minutes left in the quarter, Ricefrente and Wetherbee’s crew went down to the tunnel where they waited for halftime.

“I was in the tunnel and then they called Noah, Elijah, Genie and my daughter down to the field so they could do the Power-Aid toss,” said Ricafrente. “I was this much closer to seeing the rest of my family.”

Ricafrente had seen his daughter and wife the day before while Noah and Elijah were at a sleepover.

“[During the video] I peaked out of the tunnel and I could already see my two boys crying so that melted my heart even more. I was thinking, ‘Oh man, they think I’m gone.’”

After great anticipation, Ricafrente stepped out on the field and embraced his sons. “I finally get to make my family complete again,” said Ricafrente.

“Words can’t even explain how I felt when I could finally see them. And especially the reaction on their face was priceless,” said Ricafrente. “I was just glad that I got to be there. Especially because I got to surprise Noah for his birthday…that was a big plus.”

Overwhelmed with excitement and emotion, Ricafrente was unaware of their Pirate audience. “I heard the screaming, but at that point I was more focused on my family,” he said.

Ricafrente’s wife, Genie, said the set-up wasn’t easy, but worth it.

“Trying to keep that a secret was the hardest thing I had to do,” said Genie. “The anticipation when we were walking up [to the field], I started tearing and my youngest one was like, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I just said, ‘Oh, I miss your dad.’”

When we went back up, people were shaking his hand, taking pictures with him. My boys were saying ‘My dad’s a superstar,’” said Genie.

Students who attended the football games say they were moved that they were able to share that moment.

“It was so precious. I cried,” said junior Kaylee Bythell.


This writer can be contacted at

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