When the two-minute warning in the first half arrived at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon, the visiting Cleveland Browns were holding a 14-3 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and had outgained the home team, 183 yards to 92. After that short break in the action, however, the Buccaneers scored the last 14 points of the game and won the yardage battle, 196-157.
Obviously, every Bucs fan in attendance enjoyed the the second half of the afternoon much more than the first. Nobody's day turned around at the two-minute warning more wonderfully, however, than that of Tonya Riley.
Riley was at the game with a large group of family members, including her three sons, Justin (11), Brandon (10) and Kevin (8). They were guests of General Manager Mark Dominik, and some of the Rileys were already looking forward to the break two minutes before halftime because Tonya's husband, Daniel Riley, was going to be featured on the videoboard. A sergeant in the U.S. Army currently stationed in Kuwait with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, Riley had taped a greeting to his family and the crowd as part of the Buccaneers' Military Appreciation Game.
Riley is in his second tour of duty with the Army and his first overseas. He had been due for about two weeks of leave last month but it had been postponed, and it wasn't clear when he was going to get a chance to come home for a visit. His tour in Kuwait is supposed to last into December. Thus Riley's videotaped message was going to be a treat for Tonya and her family, if a little bittersweet.
Only two of the 20 Riley family members on hand knew what was really going on, however. Tonya and her boys were in for a treat even better than the 17-14 Buccaneers victory they would witness firsthand. That's because Dominik and the Buccaneers had arranged for Riley to be granted leave and flown home in time to attend Sunday's game in person.
That led to the moment that thrilled Riley and her family and had fans all over the stadium reaching for tissues. As Riley's videotaped segment ended, the videoboard view switched to a live shot of Sgt. Riley descending the stairs towards the front row of Section 121, also known as Dominik's Den, where his wife and kids were seated. Fans all around the family realized what was happening immediately and pointed to the soldier in his desert camouflage uniform, and Tonya and her boys sprinted up the stairs to embrace their husband and father. Tonya Riley couldn't hold back the tears.
"I went running up the stairs," said Tonya just minutes after the emotional reunion. "I couldn't wait for him to come down. It's a little overwhelming right now. I'm shaking still. I'm a little speechless, but I'm just glad to have him home."
For Sgt. Riley, the first half of the game was hard to handle, and not because the Browns were threatening an upset. To preserve the surprise, he spent most of the first half in a private booth in the Buccaneers' press box. The booth just happened to have a perfect angle for viewing the front row of Section 121, almost directly beneath his seat. Sgt. Riley watched his family as they enjoyed the game more than he watched the actual action on the field.
"It was an amazing experience to be here," he said. "It was extremely hard to sit up there in the press box and watch them down here having fun. I just couldn't wait until halftime. It was amazing to come down the steps and see them.
"I can text my wife through the phone I have overseas, so I told her to make sure the boys brought cameras so they could take pictures. I got one from her that said, 'We're sitting right here on the front row in the end zone. Wish you were here.'"
That wish came true due to some helpful coordinator by Riley's younger brother and the Bucs' desire to show the U.S. Military how much they appreciate its service and sacrifice. In addition to Riley's reunion, the Buccaneers also saluted dozens of members of the military during another game stoppage, scheduled a flyover of military jets and had a trio of para-commandos jump into the stadium before the game.
But it was Tonya Riley sprinting up the stairs to hug her husband, their three boys right behind, that really fired up the stadium. A huge cheer broke out throughout the crowd, followed by a heartfelt chant of "USA! USA!" Perhaps it was no coincidence that the game's momentum shifted so permanently in the favor of the home team immediately thereafter.
For the Rileys, the good feelings would last well past the final whistle in Sunday's game. Young Justin Riley said he was looking forward to going back home – the Rileys live in Casselberry, just north of Orlando – and just hanging out with his dad. Sgt. Riley said his plans for the evening were essentially whatever his boys wanted to do. Tonya probably wasn't planning on letting David get more than five feet away from her.
This was a family reunited, in front of tens of thousands of Buccaneer fans voicing their appreciation for their sacrifice to the nation. Sgt. Riley had predicted he would have trouble speaking at the moment of reunion, and he was right. He and his wife weren't the only ones choked up, but the emotions were sweet and gripping.
Actually, 10-year-old Brandon summed up those emotions with his own three-word synopsis of the reunion:
"I was happy."