By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
The newcomer in the all-white Nebraska football uniform paced around the locker room minutes before Saturday’s annual Spring Game.
When he sat down, his legs would shake and bounce.
Clearly, nerves took control.
Minutes later, he would experience his first Tunnel Walk entrance with another rookie, freshman quarterback Tristin Gebbia, who also had never participated in this honored Husker pregame ritual.
“So much emotion,” said Matthew Hawke, who’d squeezed into a jersey for the first time in some 20 years.
“I admire how these guys get dressed every week,” Hawke said, smiling, “because this was a process.”
Hawke wore No. 10, which just happened to be the first jersey Nebraska personnel found for the 39-year-old Lincoln native.
Turns out, the number did bear some significance.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Hawke had just spent 10 months serving in Afghanistan with his Army unit, G Company 2-104th GSAB “Task Force Nightmare,” TAAC-S Medevac.
While the unit was scheduled to return on Saturday – the National Guard base in Lincoln had a mid-day celebration – Hawke had planned to stay in Afghanistan an extra 30 days to voluntarily help train the next unit.
At least, that’s what Hawke’s wife, Nicole, thought.
“I wouldn’t say I lied to my wife,” Hawke said, “but I mislead her a little bit.”
Oh, Hawke did indeed volunteer. Except, his services were never required, so he could travel home with the rest of his unit.
That’s how Saturday’s emotional surprise midfield at Memorial Stadium unfolded.
Brian George, general manager with Husker IMG sports marketing, along with Erika Grimm, partner services coordinator with IMG, and Jason Rathe, Nebraska assistant athletic director for marketing and fan experience, were looking for a special event to highlight the military theme of this year’s Spring Game.
They told Hawke’s wife and six children, ages 2-18, that Nebraska wanted to honor them as honorary captains, a salute of thanks for Matthew volunteering to stay overseas longer than expected.
They agreed, which meant participating in the pregame coin flip. The family walked to midfield, where captains from both the Red team and White team met.
Among the White team members was a man wearing a helmet with a tinted visor.
Hawke removed his helmet, at which point his son Riley, age 11, simply froze.
The boy's mouth gaped open. He began bawling.
Hawke’s other younger son, Riley, flipped the coin, and then tears and hugs with the entire family began to commence.
A truly unexpected reunion.
“I was getting goosebumps out there,” Nebraska white team captain Peyton Newell said. “I really have no Army relationship as far as family, but I know I do what I do every day is because of those men.
“It was an amazing feeling seeing his kids out there. They all froze. They didn’t know how to react. I can’t imagine going 10 months … I know what it’s like to lose a parent, with my mom, but there’s a difference knowing they’re in heaven, and knowing they’re overseas risking their lives every day. That was an amazing feeling to see all of his kids and his wife.”
Hawke has spent 16 years in the service and has attended every home Nebraska football game possible. He couldn’t last season, but still watched all but one game, at Ohio State, on television.
“He’s out there protecting people and he makes time to watch us. That’s crazy to me,” Newell said
Saturday’s moment ranks up there with Jack Hoffman’s touchdown run, with Taylor Martinez guiding him all the way, as memorable Nebraska Spring Game moments.
“It’s one of the true reasons why I came here, because it’s so much bigger than football here,” Newill said.
Of course, pulling off this feat, with IMG sponsor First National Bank, was no easy task.
“We probably looked like ducks,” George said. “We tried to be very calm on top of the water, but behind the scenes I would say there were a lot of moving parts up until even yesterday.”
Turns out, getting a military member from Afghanistan to Nebraska isn’t all that easy.
“The entire unit, I think it took them 27 hours in the air and five different flights to get them to Fort Hood,” George said.
The rest of the unit didn’t arrive until Saturday, but Hawke’s arrival was pushed ahead to Friday night. He secretly stayed in a hotel, away from his family, so as not to ruin the pregame surprise.
“We feel like we’ve talked to almost every single person in the military by now to make this happen,” George said.
Now, Hawke and other members of his military unit can enjoy Easter weekend, and more, with family.
“I’m home for good now,” Hawke said, “until they send me somewhere else.”
Saturday’s experience, he said, is one he’ll treasure forever.
“There’s no place like Nebraska,” Hawke said. “I love this state.”
After ten months away from home, welcome Home Staff Sergeant Hawke. pic.twitter.com/TzOcrJjysg— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) April 15, 2017
Reach Brian at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.