Emotional video featuring local goes viral

Published 12:10 am Monday, October 5, 2015

MEMPHIS — A trip to the gas station doesn’t usually garner more than 2 million views but it did when a father surprised his son to make up for missing his birthday.

Theo Sewell Jr.’s father, Theo Sewell Sr., had had to miss his son’s 13th birthday because the father worked on an offshore oilrig. So when the son saw his father approximately a week after his September birthday, he was taken by surprise.

“I just started screaming and hugging and yelling, “Dad,” Theo Jr. said.

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And when his shrieks of joy and surprise made it to the Internet, the story of parental love struck a chord with YouTube viewers, causing the video to go viral.

Theo’s parents divorced around the time he was 2, but his mother, Shelia Nelson Sewell, said she and Theo Sr. work hard to co-parent.

“We’ve just made it our mission to make sure he knows that both of us love him,” Shelia said.

The two had been planning the surprise ever since they discovered the father wouldn’t be able to make Theo’s birthday.

The original plan was for Theo Sr. to surprise his son by picking him up from school. But, when Shelia made an unexpected stop for gas, she received a phone call from Theo Sr. that he had checked into his hotel, which was right next to the station.

They quickly decided to have him come to the station. As Theo began pumping gas, his father approached and she began filming.

Shelia said she and her son often film each other playing around.

“When she had the camera on me, I already knew that something was going to happen,” Theo said.

But, at the time, Theo had only one thing to say.

“Mom, really?” he said.

He wasn’t expecting his father to answer.

“Yes, really,” Theo Sr. said.

At first Theo Jr. said he was scared, because he didn’t know who had spoken. But when he turned and saw his father, the fear turned to joy.

“It was highly unexpected,” Theo Jr. said. “Highly. One-hundred percent unexpected.”

Theo Jr. reacted so enthusiastically it raised a concern for his father.

“I just didn’t want to fall over,” Theo Sr. said.

Afterward, father and son spent the day together and Shelia posted the video on her YouTube channel. Almost overnight the video became a hit, with one reposting of the video garnering more than 2 million views.

The story was then picked up by a number of news stations.

“To think that 50 seconds has turned into all of this, it’s amazing,” Shelia said.

Messages began pouring in, with people writing about their relationships with their parents and how inspired they were. Others were impressed by how Theo’s parents had worked together, and how Theo Sr. credited Shelia at the end of the video for the surprise.

“So many people grabbed on to that to show the working relationship that we had as far as he’s concerned,” Shelia said.

Shelia and Theo Sr. also said fathers in the African-American community don’t always get the best rap.

“In many publications there’s a lot of negative images of African-American fathers, and I think the video touches people because it was a positive light,” Theo Sr. said.

But Theo Sr. said they wanted things to be different for Theo.

“We both had come from homes that weren’t two-parent homes, so we both wanted to make sure that he had the best experience possible,” Theo Sr. said.

Theo Sr. said his mother, Inez Granger, put a lot of effort into raising him, and told him the best way he could thank her was to be a good parent.

“I’m just trying to replicate what she’s done for me,” Theo Sr. said.

Theo Jr. said his father is his best friend and he wants to emulate him when he becomes a parent.

“I want to be there for my son, hopefully Theo III,” Theo Jr. said.