Army newlyweds honored at Magic-Mavs game

Published Dec. 22, 2010 12:04 p.m. ET

By KELLY LAFFEY Contributor

Dec. 22, 2010

Everyone in the sellout crowd for Tuesday night's Magic-Mavericks game left the Amway Center with a story to tell. But no one's story can compare to that of Army specialists Lauren and Derek O'Neill.

The O'Neills returned to the United States on Dec. 11 after separate tours overseas -- 10 months in Iraq for Lauren, and nine months in Afghanistan for Derek -- just in time for their wedding four days later.

The couple met and started dating on a military base in Ansbach, Germany, and while Lauren O'Neill insists that they innocently met through mutual friends, her husband has a different account of the events.

"I actually saw her across the parade field, and I wanted to know who she was," he said. "And the rest is history."

Unassuming and unpretentious, the newlyweds simply hoped to catch a Magic game during their short homecoming.

Lauren O'Neill grew up Lauren Telleria in Central Florida and has always been an avid Magic fan. Her loyalty manifests itself in a tattered Magic blanket that has accompanied her throughout her overseas tours.

"When she was 9 or 10, I bought her an Orlando Magic blanket," her mother, Catherine Vanturini, said. "A lot of soldiers, on their backpacks, would carry pillows. She folded her Magic blanket up nice and neat and always carried it on her backpack."

Said O'Neill: "It reminds me of home, and it's soft. It goes with me everywhere, and it's old, and it . . .

" . . . smells," her husband chimed in with a playful smile.

Derek O'Neill, who is originally from Alaska, actually came into Tuesday night's game a Mavericks fan, but after an evening of unforgettable surprises for him and his new bride, he may just have switched allegiances.

The couple was given courtside seats to the game, and before the game, Magic community ambassador Bo Outlaw presented Lauren O'Neill with the jersey of her favorite player, Magic center Dwight Howard.

The Magic recognized the couple as "Fans of the Game," and the shocked O'Neills counted down to "Magic Time" before joining the team in the high-five line.

The happy couple was interviewed during halftime of the Sun Sports telecast, and then was treated to another surprise when FOX Sports Florida and Sun Sports senior vice president and general manager Steve Tello presented each of them with Apple iPads.

The couple returns to Germany in early January and will be transferred to Fort Drum in upstate New York sometime in the spring or summer. But yet another deployment to different regions of the Middle East isn't out of the question, and the O'Neills shared an emotional moment when they realized how the iPads could be used for keeping in touch.

With 26 points and 23 rebounds against the Mavericks, Dwight Howard lived up to his Superman nickname, but superhero monikers seem even more fitting when describing the O'Neills.

Their daily lives constantly obligate them to exhibit the hallmarks of superheroes -- courage, intellect, strength and character. And now beyond the traditional day-to-day challenges of the military, the couple faces the very real possibility of spending the early part of their marriage apart.

But Derek O'Neill refused to dwell on the negatives.

"We knew when we signed up that there was a chance that that was going to happen," he said. "It's a part of the journey."

The couple's most recent trip was somewhat more relaxing -- a cruise to the Bahamas for the wedding. Surrounded by family and friends from the military, the soldiers married on the beach in Nassau, and the happy couple couldn't have asked for a more perfect venue.

Vanturini recalled how excited her daughter was to get married on a cruise.

"Lauren said 'We can just get back on the boat and eat,' which we did," she said. "It was very beautiful."

But nothing was more beautiful than the sight of Lauren O'Neill's mother and father during the singing of the national anthem. Their pride in their daughter and new son-in-law was written on their tear-streaked faces.

O'Neill echoed her parents' sentiment.

"We live in the greatest country in the entire world," she said, with her husband quick to agree.

The evening's surprises rendered the O'Neills speechless for much of the game, and when they found words, they offered effusive thanks to everyone involved in planning the event.

But ultimately, the couple was most grateful for the opportunity to be home together for the holidays.

"So many of our brothers and sisters are still overseas during this time of year," Lauren O'Neill said longingly.

Vanturini knows that her daughter's time at home is also fleeting, but she's learned to cope.

"I told her no matter where she's at, just look at the moon -- we all have the same moon," Vanturini said.

For Vanturini, there's comfort in knowing that somewhere out there, there will be a beautiful young soldier with a Dwight Howard jersey and a Magic blanket with her eyes on the skies thinking of home.

And that's enough for her.

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