Bellwood-Antis High School junior football player Josh Gongloff is hoping for a victory tonight in the Blue Devils' annual "Backyard Brawl'' rivalry game with neighboring Tyrone.
What happened at Wednesday's practice, though, already has him feeling like a winner.
"I turned around and was like 'Whoa,''' Gongloff said. "I was crying.''
Gongloff, a defensive tackle, was the victim of a beautifully-executed misdirection play. His father, Paul, is a sergeant in the National Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade, which returned to the area this week after a year at Fort Liberty in Iraq. Paul Gongloff, nicknamed "Piper,'' didn't return to Blair County with the rest of the unit, though, because he was deployed out of Lewistown.
So, the elder Gongloff engineered a little surprise as his son prepared for tonight's game.
"I had no idea. He told everyone to tell me he wouldn't be coming home until [Thursday],'' Josh said. "He showed up at practice in our car. I ran over and gave him a big hug.''
The team then let out a cheer. The father and son hadn't seen each other since Christmas, when Paul had 11 days leave.
Making the timing of the return all the more special is that Josh will be making the first start of his varsity career tonight.
"That was my biggest thing - to be home in time to see his first start,'' Paul, 49, said. "I'm very excited. He's worked hard for this. We're all looking forward to it.''
"It's going to be amazing,'' Josh said.
Josh, 16, is the only child Paul has with his wife of 18 years and 11 months, Sherry. The family resides in Tipton, where there's a large "welcome home'' banner across the street from their home.
Paul is originally from Twin Rocks and played four years of high school football at Blacklick Valley in the 1970s. That played a big role in getting his son into the sport.
"He influenced me. He showed me the Steelers when I was 6 years old. I've been playing football ever since,'' Josh said. "We're really close.''
Paul had intended to take a Blue Devils jersey with his son's number to the Middle East, but an extra shirt wasn't available. So, instead, he took one of Josh's junior high jerseys on his tour and hung it in his hooch at Camp Liberty.
"I missed [my family] a lot,'' Paul said. "I didn't think it would be as hard as it was. You get homesick.''
Paul said he hasn't missed any of Josh's games growing up. Now that he's back, he doesn't think there should be an conflicts causing him to end that streak.
"I'll be at every game,'' Paul said.
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