Staff Photo: John Bohn Atlanta Falcon players Michael Palmer, right, a graduate of Parkview High School, and Joe Hawley, left, hold a crying Aiden Bowers, 1, while taking part in a gathering of military families hosted by Operation Homefront Goorgia at Dave & Busters in Lawrenceville on Monday. Aiden's father Tim Bowers is a retired US Army soldier from Decatur.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- In 2010, when Army Cpl. Gary Knight was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, he was coded for four minutes and medical personnel at the scene didn't think Knight would survive.
So when Knight arrived at the Dave and Busters at Sugarloaf Mills Mall on Monday he was so excited and nervous that he stayed in the parking lot for an hour.
"Trying to get myself ready to come in," said Knight, who is stationed at Fort Stewart. "I was nervous about coming in and meeting them. It felt like Christmas morning, I didn't sleep good last night."
Knight eventually met Atlanta Falcons players Michael Palmer and Joe Hawley during an event put on by the Falcons and Operation Homefront Georgia, which assists military personnel and wounded warriors. Palmer's father and grandfather served in the military, and Hawley has a brother-in-law who is currently deployed.
Nine families attended Monday's festivities, which included bowling, game cards, Christmas gifts and a meal courtesy of the Falcons. The families also received tickets to the Falcons' final home game against Tampa Bay on Dec. 30.
Knight was teary-eyed moments after he had Palmer and Hawley sign several autographs and hand out Falcons decals. Knight said he hadn't eaten out since 2010.
"They keep on giving to us, it's unbelievable," Knight said of Operation Homefront. "When I joined, I didn't join for any other reason than I wanted to defend my country. This is what shows me people care, it means a lot. It's a real good feeling. They did too much; they don't have to do all this."
Knight and his wife were on hand with their four daughters, and he said Operation Homefront helped his families a few months ago when they fell behind on some bills.
Kim Scofi, president of Operation Homefront Georgia, said her organization recognizes military families around Georgia, and her staff takes mental notes throughout the year about members of the military or their families taking an interest in the Falcons or Atlanta Braves.
"They can't believe that they're face to face with somebody they consider a hero," Scofi said. "This is somebody who's made it, and they're just in awe of them. Some of these children have never been to a professional ballgame."
Some of the parents haven't either, like Staff Sgt. Adam Tokach, who returned from Afghanistan on Dec. 8 after nine months and his sixth deployment. Tokach said he enjoyed watching his son Jason, 11, take off for the video game room.
But Tokach said he was thankful for the event, and will attend his first NFL game on Dec. 30.
"This is definitely a bonus," said Tokach, who is also stationed at Fort Stewart. "It's not every day that you get to meet a couple of Atlanta Falcons football players, or any pro football players. Or eat free food at a Dave and Busters. Get games and gifts. I'm definitely very thankful for what they've done."
For the Falcons players, Palmer said they wanted to give the families one thing that most haven't had lately: time together.
"If they can come here and take their mind off everything else, that's perfect," said Palmer, a Parkview grad.
When Palmer spoke to the families after their meal, he began to say there was one rule for the evening, before he was cut off by Hawley.
"There are no rules," Hawley said.