-- U.S. Army Major Sam Sanderson has been apart from his two children for many holidays and birthdays during his nearly 20-year military career.
So when Sanderson, a communications officer for the 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Salt Lake City, Utah, returned from his most recent Middle East deployment, he decided to surprise his 15-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son in a major way.
Sanderson, whose military service includes a 17-month combat tour in Afghanistan, returned home to Utah on Saturday, Feb. 25. That Monday, Sanderson called the Utah Jazz, his kids’ favorite NBA team, and asked if they could help him with the surprise.
The siblings were brought onto center court for what they thought was a chance to win money by playing the “hot and cold” game to find the Jazz’s mascot, Jazz Bear.
Instead, when Raegan and Jordan took their goggles off, it was their dad who had been pulled onto the court by the bear, standing in front of them.
“They wouldn’t let go of me,” Sanderson told ABC News. “My daughter was especially emotional. She couldn’t stop shaking and was trying to not have a panic attack.”
Sanderson described the moment as “surreal” and said despite the Jazz being known for having one of the loudest arenas in the NBA, everything was silent around him.
“All the noise was drowned out and I was just focused on those two,” he said of his children.
Frank Zang, senior vice president of communications for the Jazz, said the surprise “came together really quickly” and earned a standing ovation from the crowd of basketball fans.
“We were privileged to be able to participate in this homecoming,” Zang told ABC News.
Sanderson plans to retire from the National Guard this summer. He works as an IT support manager for a Veterans Affairs medical center in the Salt Lake City area.
He said he and his kids are enjoying their time together and watching in amazement as their surprise reunion goes viral.
“The joke around our house now is how many views the video has had and it’s over 1 million now,” Sanderson said. "My daughter’s friends are like, ‘You’re famous.”