Arena reunion with brother surprises GCU student
By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
The Manning family of Tucson really enjoys Christmas together, right down to the five pairs of matching jammies that Santa brings. But the past two Christmases were a little rough on John and Rhonda, parents of eldest child, Jessalyn, and the baby of the family, Lauryn, because their son, Javen, is in the U.S. Air Force and couldn’t get holiday leave.
They made up for it Saturday night in Grand Canyon University’s Arena where, during the first timeout of the men’s basketball game, Javen surprised his sisters by greeting them on the Jumbotron and then walking onto the court. It was part of a hush-hush plan that began in January with a conversation between John and GCU CEO/President Brian Mueller, and it was configured by Helen Bleach, senior director of University relations and campus events, and her super stealth Events Services staff. Thunder knew about it, too, but most everyone else did not.
Lauryn, a 20-year-old GCU sophomore and member of the dance team, screamed and burst into tears shortly after her big brother’s smiling face appeared on the huge screen. The scene had been configured to have Lauryn, Jessalyn and most everyone else in the Arena believe that Javen, 23, was bringing greetings from Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy, where he is stationed. Javen, who had been hidden in an Arena room for more than two hours before game time by Tucson friends Justin and Tanya Remsburg, then strolled through a tunnel to a thunderous roar of the announced crowd of 7,050 that soon was on its feet.
Lauryn and Jessalyn, 26, jumped into Javen’s arms in a moment that was captured by dozens of cellphones, as well as the Arena video team and various television media. The audience began shouting, “USA! USA!”
From her courtside seats with her family, Lauryn later said she initially was confused when she saw her brother on the Jumbotron. But in the seconds it took for Jacque Genung-Koch, GCU’s dance-team coach, to push her out onto the court, Lauryn began to figure it out. John said his youngest child has “CSI”-like intuition.
“It was weird because we don’t have videos” at that early point in the game, said Lauryn, grinning widely. “But it was absolutely amazing.”
Javen said it felt awkward seeing the adulating crowd, but he marveled that the University could pull it off. “It was so cool,” he said.
Javen, who last saw his sisters about a year ago, arrived home Friday and will stay for about two weeks before returning to Italy. He has had two brief tours to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and will begin a third tour this fall at an undisclosed location.
Growing up between two sisters, Javen said he was closer to Jessalyn until she turned 16 and got her driver’s license. “That’s when Lauryn and I started clicking — we both became attached,” he said.
One of John’s favorite memories of the pair was when the family went to Disneyland for Javen’s 18th birthday. “Javen and Lauryn were running around like a couple of knuckleheads,” said John, who spent 21 years in the Air Force and retired with the rank of master sergeant. “They both had Mickey Mouse ears on and went on roller coaster after roller coaster.”
John said the family was touched by GCU’s immediate reception and execution of the surprise reunion. “It’s amazing that they would do something so wonderful for my kids,” he said.
Bleach said she didn’t have to think twice about it.
“It’s exactly what we do here at GCU because we love to celebrate our students and their families — and on top of that — honoring someone in the military, that’s what we are all about,” she said. “We also try to make our basketball games special and fun for everyone. Not only do we all appreciate the military, we all know what it feels like to be welcomed home.”
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.