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June 12, 2008

Johnson found love at College World Series

OMAHA, Neb. Former North Carolina catcher Benji Johnson went to the past two College World Series seeking a national title.

He instead received a much greater prize.

Johnson met Air Force linguistics specialist Michaela Ammerman at Rosenblatt Stadium two years ago while warming up before the Tar Heels' College World Series game with Clemson. He proposed to her at the exact same spot one year later. They plan to get married Oct. 11 in Pittsboro, N.C.

And to think that Ammerman didn't even originally plan on going to Rosenblatt Stadium the day she met her future husband. The Air Force was seeking volunteers to work at the CWS when Ammerman got talked into joining her colleagues.

"I didn't want to go at first," Ammerman said in a phone interview. "The Air Force is big on volunteering. If they don't get enough volunteers, they'll voluntell you, so they told me to volunteer with my squadron."

Ammerman, a native of San Jose, Calif., who was based at Offutt Air Force Base, was spending the day selling cheesesteaks and hamburgers at a concession stand. She and a friend went into the stands during a 15-minute break and decided to try getting a baseball from one of the teams.

Johnson met her near the left-field line and gave her a souvenir baseball, and their ensuing conversation apparently made an impact. When Ammerman wasn't attending Johnson's games the rest of the College World Series, they were talking on the phone or meeting around town.

Less than a week after that initial conversation, Ammerman e-mailed her mom and said she'd met the man she was going to marry.

"I just knew," Ammerman said. "They always say, 'When you know, you know.' I never believed that.

"Then I met him and it was like, 'Yes, it's true.' "

Johnson, 21, liked Ammerman, 23, enough to invite her back to North Carolina to visit him after the CWS, though he never expected her response.

"I was serious, but I was halfway joking just because I didn't think she'd fly out," Johnson said from Rome, Ga., where he now plays for the Class A South Atlantic League's Rome Braves. "When she said she would, that's when I knew it would work."

Ammerman flew to North Carolina just before the Fourth of July. Their relationship blossomed as Johnson flew to Omaha or Ammerman visited North Carolina about once a month.

By the time UNC began marching toward a second consecutive College World Series appearance last season, Johnson started to think about proposing.

"I started praying about it about a month before the World Series," Johnson said. "The last month of the season, I was really praying we'd get back (to Omaha) because I wanted to do it there. I told myself if we get there, it must be meant to be, that I should go ahead and propose to her there."

The postseason made Johnson even more convinced that fate was telling him to take the next step. North Carolina came from behind in the ninth inning to win each of its last two regional tournament games.

Johnson bought the ring after the regional but before North Carolina's Super Regional victory over South Carolina and told a couple of teammates about his plans. By the time the Tar Heels boarded the plane to Omaha for the 2007 CWS, the entire team knew he was preparing to propose.

Because he didn't want to cause too much of a distraction, he decided to make his move during a practice instead of at a game. Ammerman showed up for a UNC morning practice assuming she was just there to get a picture of where they had met one year earlier.

When Ammerman arrived, Johnson called her down and said he'd give her another baseball. When they were at the spot where they'd first met, Johnson handed her the baseball. Ammerman then noticed he'd written something on this ball.

It all started here: June 18, 2006.

That's when Johnson pulled out the ring and got down on one knee. "It was probably the most nervous I'd been in my whole life," he said. "I was shaking like crazy."

If Johnson had wanted to catch Ammerman by surprise, it certainly worked.

"I had a feeling it was coming that year, but I was thinking more like Christmas," Ammerman said. "And if it was going to be at the World Series, I didn't think it would be the first day. It was before the games had even started."

Johnson's teammates gave the couple a hearty ovation after Ammerman accepted the proposal.

"The team knew," Ammerman said. "When he gave me the ball, they were all gathering around me, so I could tell."

Even though their wedding won't take place in Omaha, Johnson and Ammerman still figured out a way to make Rosenblatt Stadium part of their special day.

"I think it was my mom's idea," Johnson said. "That's a pretty special spot for us, so my mom said, 'Hey, why don't you put a picture of the Rosenblatt Stadium on the cake?' "

So when the wedding guests get a slice of the groom's cake at the reception, they'll see a tribute to the place where the catcher made his best catch.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.