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The family of Staff Sgt. Matthew Hawke is used to seeing him in uniform, just not the one he was wearing during a reunion they will never forget.
Hawke, 39, not only got to surprise his wife and their six children after a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan, he also lived a childhood dream by putting on the helmet and pads for the University of Nebraska football team on Saturday.
Dressed in a full Cornhuskers uniform, Hawke walked with the rest of the captains to midfield at Memorial Stadium before the team's annual spring game.
His family had been chosen to perform the pregame coin toss — unaware that the player wearing No. 10 at midfield was Hawke, until he took his helmet off to gasps and tears of joy.
"It was a dream come true,'' Hawke told TODAY. "My goosebumps had goosebumps."
Hawke's wife, Nicole, had thought he was staying in Afghanistan for another 30 days instead of coming home with his unit because he had volunteered to help train the next unit. He actually had volunteered, but the Army did not need him for that task, so he was able to return to Nebraska for the surprise.
"I was a little misleading with my wife,'' Hawke said. "She didn't know right up until the coin toss."
Hawke stayed in a hotel Friday night before getting to experience game day as a member of his favorite college football team.
The military veteran has lived in Lincoln, the home of the University of Nebraska, for the past eight years after growing up in Kenesaw, Nebraska. He got dressed in a locker next to wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr., chatted with quarterback Tommy Armstrong and met head coach Mike Riley.
"It was a dream come true,'' he said. "To do the Tunnel Walk (at Memorial Stadium), that's historic in college football. It was unreal."
It also marked the end of the latest deployment in his 17-year military career. In 2011, Hawke's daughter, Addison, 5, was born the day after he left for a deployment in Iraq.
"That was tougher than this one, coming home and meeting my daughter for the first time when she was 6 months old,'' Hawke said. "It's never an easy task being away from your family."
On Saturday he reunited with Nicole and his six children, four girls and two boys who range in age from 2 to 18. His son Riley, 11, was so focused on performing the coin toss that at first he didn't notice his father standing in front of him with his helmet off.
"Riley's smile is legendary with friends and family, so it took a lot to hold back the tears there,'' Hawke said. "He really wanted to complete that coin toss. He completed his mission, and we all ran together for the joyous moment."
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