Army Staff Sgt. Chris Ollis, who just returned from Afghanistan on leave, posed as an Asheville Tourists catcher taking the honorary first pitch at McCormick Field from his son Peyton, 6, and then surprised him and his daughter Keira, 3, with a hug. The Maggie Valley children did not know of his return home until that moment. John Coutlakisemail@example.com
ASHEVILLE - Six-year-old Peyton Ollis and his 3-year-old sister Keira thought they'd been randomly selected to throw out the first pitch at the Asheville Tourists game Thursday night.
They had no idea the man in the Tourists' uniform, behind the catcher's mask, wasn't the Tourists catcher.
Instead, Staff Sgt. Chris Ollis surprised his two children in front of Tourists fans and about 100 cheering friends and family members.
"It was my wife's idea," Ollis said before the start of the game. "I'm just extremely excited. It's a memory that the kids will be able to share. My son and my daughter will be able to go to school and tell all their friends about it, and then our family can talk about it for years to come."
Deployed to Afghanistan, Ollis hadn't seen his two children in eight and a half months. The last time he played ball with his son was last summer, and he missed all of his son's first season of tee-ball.
But with two weeks of leave back home this month, Ollis' wife Kayla came up with the perfect way to surprise baseball-obsessed Peyton.
"I said I would love to do something for the kids, just as a total and complete surprise," Kayla Ollis said. "Our son loves and is obsessed with baseball, any kind of baseball. I said I would love to do it at a baseball stadium."
Kayla's friend Beth Henderson began making calls. She contacted Jon Clemmons, promotions and merchandise manager for the Tourists.
It was a surprise that was months in the making.
Clemmons drafted a letter to the Ollis children, letting them know they'd been randomly selected from Western North Carolina children with parents serving in the military overseas to throw out the first pitch at a Tourists game.
"Your participation in our game will help us honor your father, Staff Sgt. Chris Ollis and all of those who serve during this time of war," the letter read.
Ollis actually arrived in the U.S. Monday. His wife traveled to Atlanta to pick him up, and simply told the kids she had to go out of town.
The two kept his homecoming a secret from the kids. It wasn't easy.
Peyton lost his first tooth this week and was eager to talk to his mom on the phone.
"I was sitting in the car with her the whole time," Ollis said.
With no idea his dad was listening, Peyton explained how he swallowed the tooth and how he wrote the tooth fairy a letter and put it under his pillow since he didn't have the tooth.
"I wanted to say something so bad," Ollis said.
The two managed to keep the secret from the children, but not from the rest of the community.
The town of Maggie Valley, where the Ollis family lives, turned out for a parade.
And a group Patriot Guard Riders on motorcycle escorted Ollis to McCormick Field. The road leading to the stadium was lined with people holding flags.
"It makes it a little bit easier to be away from the kids and the wife when you see all those people that still appreciate what we do and that we're still not forgotten," Ollis said.
In the Tourists locker room, Ollis was welcomed by players. He then exchanged his Army fatigues for a Tourist uniform and catcher's mask.
Waiting inside the training room, Ollis described how he'd missed all his son's tee-ball games.
"My wife videotaped a lot of stuff and took pictures," he said.
Ollis has been deployed to Afghanistan twice and has also had two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army. He's only home for two weeks, but hopes he'll be back in time for Christmas.
"Next week, we're going to the beach so it will be a fun time," he said. "Both my kids are swimming now. Now that I'm back, I'll be able to see them do that. It's exciting to catch up on the things I missed out on."
When word came that the kids were on the field, Ollis headed up through the dugout.
After the first pitch, he took off his mask. Soon after, he had his arms around his children at home plate.
Peyton Ollis said he was "really surprised" to see his dad. "I was proud to see my dad in the catcher uniform," he said.