Community

Reconnecting with the military family Browns helped reunite

The Browns had signature moments on the field during the 2014 season – a 25-point NFL record comeback win against the Tennessee Titans and a thumping of the Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium are at the forefront.

But the club's community relations department executed a brilliant game plan of their own during a December home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Staff Sergeant Anthony Wagner, an Akron native and lifelong Browns fan, had been stationed in Afghanistan for nine months and wanted to join forces with his favorite football team for the shock of a lifetime.

"You deploy for so long and it's tough on everybody," Wagner said. "I wanted to do something my family would never forget."

Wagner, 35, reached out to the Browns about whether it was possible to surprise his wife and kids on the field during an actual game. He wrote a deeply impactful note about his story and the love he has for his family. It got in front of the right eyeballs, and the Browns community staff was thrilled to coordinate the whole operation.

On Wagner's plane ride back from Afghanistan, dream-like thoughts entered his mind. Sharing this life-changing moment with the team he grew up with and still follows religiously overseas was almost overwhelming.

"Is this really happening?" Wagner recalled thinking. "You always see those families on television but you never know who they are. And there really is nothing like a Cleveland Browns fan. Every year, we are still loyal. We are some nail-biting fans."

Wagner was antsy in a good way when he arrived at FirstEnergy Stadium on that cloudy December day. Up in the press box with a pair of binoculars he peered down on the field and saw his unsuspecting family of three. His wife Jennifer, 9-year-old daughter Jaelyn and 7-year-old son Austin thought they were on the field with other military families being honored.

During a commercial break, the Browns played what looked like a taped message on the jumbotron from Wagner while he was overseas.

"And I have one more surprise," Wagner said as the crowd perked up with anticipation.

Sprinting out of the tunnel with American flags waving behind him, Wagner was met in the end zone by a leaping bear hug and tears of joy from Jaelyn and Austin. The emotional embrace didn't leave a dry eye in the stadium.

"That day will always be something special for me and my kids," said Wagner. "It's one of those tingly feelings that's almost impossible to describe."

Wagner and his family currently live in Fort Carson, Colorado, where he's gearing up for his third deployment and another year-long stay in Korea.

But this time when he's overseas, he and Austin will be able to bond over the Browns. Wagner decorated his son's room with orange Cleveland Browns wallpaper and gave him what's now become a family heirloom – an orange wall clock with legends Bernie Kosar and Kevin Mack on it.

"He's becoming a pretty good little Browns fan," Wagner said with pride. "There's no other way we'd have it."

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