'Nice having you back, sir:' Navy dad back from Afghanistan

By ANDREW WAGAMAN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 8, 2014

The surprise was over and the second half of the boys basketball game was beginning last Saturday as Navy Capt. Andrew Johnson took a seat behind the Cox High School team bench.

His 12-year-old daughter Gracie rested her head on his shoulder, and a number of Cox parents pointed cameras at them. But Johnson was already leaning forward and following the game, particularly his sons, Critt and Cole. When Cole, a sophomore guard, missed an off-balance 3-pointer a minute later, dad cupped his hands around his mouth.

"Square up, Cole!" he called. "Square up!"

Cox assistant coach Kevin Hopkins turned and said, "Nice having you back, sir."

Johnson hadn't attended any of his sons' football or basketball games all year. Since July, he'd served as the Regional Command Southwest surgeon and medical advisor for the II Marines Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan.

Critt, a 6-foot-5 junior forward, and Cole, a 6-foot-4 guard, expected their dad to return this weekend. He was able to come home a week earlier, so wife and mother Melissa Johnson planned a surprise for the co-captains at halftime of the Bayside game last Saturday.

"Is there a doctor in the house?" PA announcer Kyle Stein asked as the second half was set to begin. Critt and Cole turned from the huddle to see dad walking in. They embraced under the basket, Cole looking a little stunned and Critt wearing a wide smile.

The whole thing took less than 30 seconds before a whistle blew and play resumed. Johnson checked the scoreboard and saw Cox trailed 16-10.

"I knew this would be a tough game after the long layoff," he said, referring to the snowy week of postponed games.

This was not the first game he'd watched all season. Thanks to Hudl, an online video service used mostly by coaches and recruiters, dad didn't miss a Cox football game all fall and has watched most of the basketball games this winter.

"Andy watches every... single... play," Melissa Johnson said.

Capt. Johnson would use the service's video editing tool to put together a reel of highlights and lowlights, or cutups. His sons would watch during the family's video chats.

"He'll be like, 'Pull up the play at 1:25, and check out how your block impacted the play," said Critt, a tight end on the football team.

"Sometimes after a mistake you're thinking, 'I'm going to hear about that,' " said Cole, who was Cox's JV quarterback this fall.

But the brothers said they would look forward to the critiques. Dad's fair - not overbearing - and insightful.

When he'd point out patterns or referenced a recent game, it was like he has been in the crowd all year.

Johnson was overseeing medical care for coalition forces while helping the Afghans of the Helmand and Nimroz provinces develop their military trauma system.

This was his third deployment, and it was unexpected. Last spring he was asked to replace another doctor in the leadership position. Because of the mission's importance, he accepted.

He'd pull up his sons' most recent game whenever he got the chance. Because of the slow Internet connection, he never watched it in one sitting.

Still, "Hudl has been indispensable," he said. "The connectivity has made being away much more tolerable."

Johnson left the Ramstein Air Base in Germany last Saturday morning. He almost missed his connecting flight in Philadelphia - the door was locked when he arrived at the gate. An attendant let him board.

Melissa Johnson picked him up at the airport at 6:45, where he surprised Gracie. They arrived at Bayside High with a minute left in halftime.

Bayside extended its lead in the third quarter before the Falcons started chipping away. Critt (13 points, 10 rebounds) made a few shots in and around the paint. Then, with 1:02 remaining and the Falcons trailing by four, Cole got open on the left wing. This time he squared up. This time, the shot went in.

Cox would go on to win in overtime. But at that moment, as Cole ran back on defense, he glanced over at dad.

And there he was.


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