Aberdeen High School volleyball player Abby Baumgardner was starting to get annoyed with the antics of the Bobcat mascot during pregame warm-ups — until he revealed his identity, surprising almost everyone there.
Baumgardner’s brother-in-law, Army Sgt. Bradley Heden, was the man behind the Bobcat mask. He stunned her when he announced his return from his latest tour of duty just before Aberdeen’s match against Black Hills on Oct. 9.
Baumgardner said she was initially confused as to why the mascot kept knocking away her ball during warm-ups.
“I had no idea who it was at first. We have a new (student playing the) Bobcat, so I was so scared. I was like: Oh my gosh, this new Bobcat is a creeper,” she said, laughing.
But when Heden took off the Bobcat head, she couldn’t hold back her emotions.
“I wasn’t really ready for it,” she said. “I just broke down. I didn’t know what to do.”
Heden also felt the emotions of the moment. He had been in town for less than a day after a tour of active duty in South Korea. His entire family had been under the impression that he wasn’t returning until later this month.
He gave credit to school officials for making the surprise possible.
“It was a rush of emotions. It was an incredible opportunity. I want to thank Aberdeen High School for allowing me to do that and loan the costume to me so I could give her that surprise,” he said. “It was very heartwarming. It was incredible.”
Heden enjoyed his brief stint as mascot as he delivered high-fives to students and danced on the sidelines to the musical selection during pre-game drills.
“It was definitely interesting. I enjoy being a mascot because they get to act goofy and silly and no one knows who you are, so you don’t have that fear of judgment,” he said. “You get to just goof around, and all the kids look up to you.”
Though he did it in less dramatic fashion, Heden also surprised his wife, Kayla, with his return earlier that day.
“The first time he went to Iraq, we picked him up and I knew what was happening.” The recent return “was supposed to be sometime this month and I was thinking Oct. 28,” said Kayla. “He got up behind me, and I don’t even remember what he said. I just thought it was some random person, and I turned around and it was him.”
With two weeks of leave before he reports to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Heden’s mission is to spend quality time with his family.
Baumgardner plans to spend as much time as she can with her brother-in-law, whom she hadn’t seen or been able to talk with since late February. She said she’s looking forward to hanging out with him now that the 16-hour time difference is no longer an issue.
“I can honestly tell him anything. He was always there for me, and when he was gone I couldn’t talk to him because the timing was all off,” she said. “It was hard without him, but I’m so happy to have him back.”