TAMPA — She's not sure where the music inside her came from, but maybe it started in Greenville, S.C., when she was two. She doesn't remember this, but her mother has told her the story. Sonya Bryson was obsessed with dolls, soft fuzzy ones. She sat them in front of her at one end of her crib, and she sang. Her first audience. The songs were unintelligible, but the fans didn't seem to mind.
Or maybe it came to her a few years later, on Easter Sunday. All the kids at Mount Emmanuel Baptist Church were required to either recite a poem before the congregation or sing a song. The little girl in the frilly church dress didn't want to memorize a poem, so she sang This Little Light of Mine to a crowd of 800. She doesn't remember being nervous.
There were also Saturday mornings, all the wonderful Saturday mornings at home, as she grew into a woman, when her father would pull an album from his huge collection and switch on the record player and fill the house with the sounds of Etta James or Count Basie or Ella Fitzgerald.
In high school, she joined the chorus and the instructor introduced the young vocalists to classical music. She fell for the structure and tradition of Brahms and, later, Yo-Yo Ma.
The music came to her all the time, as she joined the Air Force and built a family. She made up lullabies when her kids were babies. They're 25, 22 and 18 now, but they remember. Her son is expecting his first child in October. She'll be a grandma and she'll sing the same songs to the little one.
She has always loved The Star-Spangled Banner. She sings it every day. She'll sing it forever if they let her. She pictures the rockets' red glare and the bombs bursting in air and thinks about that tattered flag, still there. She gets choked up every time. If you listen close, you can hear it.
She sang the song in front of people for the first time in 2003, at MacDill Air Force Base, where she works in maintenance. She has sung it in public since then more than 1,000 times. People seem to like it, she says.
She sang it at a Tampa Bay Rays game a few years ago, then at a Tampa Bay Storm game. Somebody with the Lightning asked her to come in for an audition. She noticed how cold the air was in the arena — not great for your vocal chords — but she sang her best. She didn't see any competitors there for the tryouts. Turns out, they just wanted to get her key right.
She's on YouTube now. When you sing in front of 18,000 fans 52 times over two seasons, that's what happens. She's her own worst critic. Some of the videos make her cringe.
People sometimes recognize her on the street now, too. Not long ago, she was in the produce section at the Publix near her home in Odessa when a big man walked up and tapped her on the shoulder. You're the lady who sings the national anthem at the Lightning games, he said. She's still not used to being recognized.
Her parents came to watch once. Her dad gave her a high five. Her mother cried and said: "People really love you."
She loves Whitney Houston's version of the song, and one Beyoncé did a few years ago, but she doesn't make any dramatic vocal runs in alto, which has dropped deeper as her hair grays around the edges. She could, but the song stands on its own. "You don't have to add flourishes to our national anthem," she says.
As the tension built in the Lightning's run at the Stanley Cup, she didn't feel the pressure. It's the same song she has always sung. She just wants to be good for Game 1.
She's not worried about the Chicago Blackhawk fans, either. She knows they're notorious for cheering and shouting during the anthem so loud they drown out the singers at away games. Let them shout, she says. Her job is to honor the flag.
She warms up her voice on the drive over and asks her daughter for feedback during sound check. She drinks a little water as she waits. Mostly she is quiet.
Outside the dressing room before the first game of the Stanley Cup final, a Tampa police officer approaches and grabs her hand.
"Thank you for your service," he says. "I always love hearing you sing."
One after another, arena employees wish her good luck or give her fist bumps.
The clock ticks away. She stands in the tunnel at Amalie Arena in her Air Force blues, quiet, trying to stay inside her own head. The Zamboni does its work, then the kid in the Lightning jersey skates onto the ice as AC/DC's Thunderstruck rises. She loves that song, too.
Then come the Tampa Bay Lightning players, Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop and Tyler Johnson. She's never met them, but she feels like she knows them. Someday, maybe.
When it's her turn, two men unroll a carpet that says TAMPA BAY and Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sonya Bryson, 48 now, walks forward and stops at the end. She turns and a woman hands her a microphone. She bites the inside of her lip, takes a breath and lets it out one more time in the home of the brave.
Contact Ben Montgomery at (727) 893-8650 or [email protected] Follow @gangrey.