A soldier's surprise: Notre Dame athlete overwhelmed by Army brother's unexpected visit
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (Tribune News Service) — Two months in the making and kept quiet from everyone who may have let the secret slip, Notre Dame junior guard Matt Farrell received an early Christmas present Monday night.
It wasn’t the 13 points he scored or the seven assists he handed out in 37 minutes in No. 25 Notre Dame’s 77-62 victory over Colgate. It was what happened after the final horn at Purcell Pavilion as he stood at the west end of the arena and watched the center-hung scoreboard that kick-started a scene that Farrell and his family will forever remember.
Everyone in the arena was urged to watch a special message on the screen. Farrell figured it would be just a typical holiday greeting from someone of note.
But it wasn’t just anyone. Up popped video of Farrell’s 26-year-old brother, Bo, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who was supposed to be deployed in Afghanistan.
But Bo wasn’t overseas. He was closer. Much closer. Closer than almost everyone in his immediate family ever imagined.
Everything seemed authentic. Bo stood with an American flag behind him on the tan-colored wall. The video even skipped and seemed to be on a delay, everything that would line up with being broadcast from the other side of the world.
Bo offered a few good words of love for his younger brother, told him how proud he was of him and promised to see him soon.
As he ended the message, the camera followed Bo as he moved to his left toward a nearby door. But the walls of the room looked a whole lot like the Irish lounge.
No way, thought Farrell, who already was in tears.
Seconds later, Bo was bounding down the ramp to the arena floor, where he raced to embrace Farrell. Over in the front row of Section 17, the Farrell family came tumbling out of the stands. That included the brothers’ father, Bob, who raced down five stairs despite ligament damage in his ankle suffered in a fall on the ice Saturday outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Then came the hugs. The smiles. The tears. The chills.
The brothers Farrell left the court, arm in arm, and listened to the alma mater together just outside the locker room door. Later, they sat side-by-side — both in uniform — for the team’s usual post-game media access.
But nobody wanted to talk about the game. Not after that scene.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Farrell said, tears welling. “I’m just lost for words. It’s awesome, man. I can’t wait to spend Christmas with him.”
Bo’s been stationed in Texas for the last two and a half years. He’s been in the Army for three and a half. Farrell hadn’t seen his older brother since May. He figured he’d see him again sometime in mid-February.
“I was real excited about that ‘cause it was coming up,” Farrell said. “But he got me. This is going to be a fun Christmas.”
Farrell couldn’t understand why his brother’s friends insisted on coming to town … in mid-December … for the Colgate game. It made no sense to him.
“Now I know why, man,” Farrell said.
Bo watched the game from an upper section of the arena before sneaking down the back way to the locker room just before the final horn. Nobody in the Farrell family knew of the secret except for their grandmother, who made sure to keep Farrell’s parents from spotting Bo, dressed in his fatigues, during the game.
“The past two months of hiding everything from my family, about coming home, I had to hide everything,” Bo said.
That meant everything. When Farrell wanted to talk to his older brother, and to keep the secret going, Bo would have to wake at 3 a.m. to match the time difference in Afghanistan.
Two nights ago, Farrell tried to Face Time his brother, who didn’t pick up. That wasn't normal. Farrell was left to wonder why.
“Now I know why,” he said.
While Farrell wasn’t happy with head coach Mike Brey, who was in on the secret, his mother, Michelle, was likely just as upset at Bo about being kept out of the loop.
“I thought my mother was going to punch me,” Bo said. “Now that she knows I’ve been home for a little over a week and have been lying to her. It’s all worth it – these two months of planning for these 30 seconds was hands-down worth it.”
The reunion wheels were set in motion in October, when Bo contacted former Irish power forward A.J. Burgett, Farrell’s close friend and an intern with the school’s Fighting Irish Media.
Bo was thinking about surprising his little brother around Christmas. Was there anything they could arrange? Logistics from both ends – Notre Dame’s and the Army’s – helped make it happen.
“Everything panned out OK,” Bo said. “It was nothing but positive and great things.”
Bo will return home to New Jersey with the Farrell family for a couple weeks before returning to Texas.
Burgett, with a whole lot of help from Aaron Horvath, FIDM platform manager and social media director, helped arrange the reunion broadcast and subsequent surprise.
It wasn’t easy trying to keep a secret from Farrell, whom Burgett saw every day. But Burgett did. Even Sunday, when he went to dinner with Bob Farrell near campus.
All the while, Burgett had Bo stashed back at his apartment.
“I had him out last night, and he still didn’t rat Bo out,” Bob Farrell said with a smile. “That’s impressive.”
Instead of opening his post-game press conference by talking about the grind of a game, the season-high 14 turnovers, the need for the Irish to get away for a few days after win No. 10, all Brey could talk about – really wanted to talk about – was what everyone had just witnessed.
“Kind of hard to talk about the game after that Farrell family surprise,” Brey said. “That was unbelievable. What a neat story.”
Farrell and his brother and the family and friends lingered on the court long after the final horn. His teammates offered up hugs to his brother. The hour was getting late. Nobody was in any hurry. With each passing minute, it meant even less sleep for everyone scheduled to head home Tuesday on a 6 a.m. flight.
“When we go home, he’ll be in the garage dribbling, continuing to work,” Bo said of Farrell. “That’s all he does. The sky will be his limit.”
Sleep, Farrell figured, was not going to happen. Not on this night. He was too revved up to be with his buddy. His hero. At Notre Dame. At Christmastime.
“I’m just really happy right now,” Farrell said. “This is the best present I’ve ever got.
“That’s my guy.”
©2016 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)
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