TAMPA — In the last home game of the regular season, rookie Ross Colton listened in awe from the Lightning bench as Sonya Bryson-Kirksey finished the national anthem.
“Sonya brings it every night, eh?” he asked center Brayden Point and forward Mathieu Joseph. “Every time.”
“She’s the best, for sure,” Point said.
That’s the kind of recognition Bryson-Kirksey has received for the past eight seasons singing for the Lightning, where her voice can raise goosebumps all the way up to the third level of Amalie Arena.
She still blows everyone away with her talents, which extend beyond music.
A Lightning icon is born
Bryson-Kirksey remembers singing since she was in the crib. But she started “feeling herself” as a teenager and knew her abilities were above average.
She sang in chorus groups in high school and started singing on military bases with an American Idol-like event after encouragement from her family.
Bryson-Kirksey’s first competition went better than she expected with a second-place finish at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. She did a similar event while spending a year in Korea and, again, when she got to MacDill in 2011.
Funnily enough, she doesn’t know how to read music and has never found her way onto a stage for karaoke night.
“You learn something different every time (you sing),” said Bryson-Kirksey, 54. “Showmanship is a lot more than standing and holding a microphone. You have so much more to convey other than just standing and singing a song. You have to put your heart into what you’re singing, you learn from other people.”
In November 2013, she sang at a USO event and was invited to a Bucs game that weekend as a thank you. She watched the action in the same suite as John Franzone, the Lightning’s vice president of game presentation.
An audition offer to sing the national anthem at Lightning games led Bryson-Kirksey to Amalie Arena the following week. She expected other vocalists to be in the running, but was shocked to find out it was just her. She went to the “crow’s nest” with Franzone and organist Krystof Srebrakowski to test her vocal cords.
When Srebrakowski asked Bryson-Kirksey what key she sang in, she couldn’t give an answer. They spent around 15 minutes finding her match before she sang the anthem three or four times.
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Upon completion, Franzone looked at her and asked if she could come that Saturday for the game. The rest was history, she said.
Bryson-Kirksey spent a year performing at Amalie Arena and working as a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant before retiring from the armed forces in 2015. During that overlap, there were times she would sing on base before arriving at Lightning home games.
“I could feel the strain,” she said, recalling a day in which she sang the national anthem four times. “I have a big mouth and singing comes easy to me for the most part, but it was a strain that day and in doing that I noticed if I kept it to a minimum on game days, I was good to go.”
Singing isn’t her only art form
While an excessive workload is no longer a concern, Bryson-Kirksey still needs an outlet to relieve her day-to-day struggles.
She finds peace when she has a paint brush in her hand and recalls fond memories of her aunt reading stories to her and her sister, Phillis, when they were younger, which has led to her latest endeavor, the Sonni Reading Project.
Both have helped her stay on track, mentally, during the coronavirus pandemic.
“People don’t think about the mental side of the pandemic because as you’re staying home, especially a person who’s as social as I am, it’s hard to keep yourself on a level playing ground,” she said.
One of her pandemic projects included painting a photo she took of a sunset 16 years ago — six years before she even moved to Florida — on a rock and a palm tree husk. After George Floyd’s death, she painted a rock in his honor for her garden.
Other projects over the years have included a painting of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (using glass collaged in a Lightning bolt), which she later gave to him as a present. Recently, she has explored marbling techniques on canvas with paint.
She has provided artwork to local businesses as well as USF for a multiple sclerosis fundraising auction.
“The creativity on the inside of me kind of covers all at some point in my day or life because at the end of the day, I can turn the TV off and I can focus introvertedly on myself, my growth, my mental health,” Bryson-Kirksey said.
A feeling that can’t be faked
Even though Bryson-Kirksey sings the anthem over and over, the passion in her voice never wanes.
“I think I’ve been patriotic all my life,” she said. “Even as a kid, I’ve always realized there was meaning to that song.”
When she gets to “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” she’s taken back to her previous deployments.
“I think about how people have given their life for the flag, given their life for this country as a whole,” she said. “If you, just as a normal person, can wrap your head around war as a whole, and this song is about war specifically, then you’ll get it and you’ll feel it as far as the importance of what’s going on in the verses.
“It adds to what I feel, it adds to how I convey it, but it also adds to the depth of what I feel for this country, and I don’t think I could sing this song if I didn’t love where I was and who I am on a daily basis.”
And that mind-set is evident to those around her.
“She is like a ball of life and light,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Her smile radiates and there’s a reason the people love her, not only because of her voice. … We’re really fortunate to have somebody sing alongside us and lead us out there game in and game out with how she does the Star-Spangled Banner.”
The players take note of the nights she isn’t behind the microphone.
“We’re lucky to have Sonya as the national anthem singer most nights in Tampa,” Joseph said. “… It’s good when we come back after a road trip and we know Sonya is singing, it kind of fires me up a bit.”
Added captain Steven Stamkos: “She’s great. You can hear the ovation she gets before every home game, so it certainly adds to the experience here at the rink. I think she’s been a huge success here in Tampa and certainly a crowd favorite.”
Bryson-Kirksey is so important to the team, they brought her voice to the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles during last year’s Stanley Cup run. The team is giving her a championship ring, which she will wear on her middle finger during games because it will be clearly visible to the audience when she holds the microphone.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I think it’s one of those things where you enjoy it while you are experiencing it, you live in the moment because if you don’t live in the moment, you never have any fond memories to look back on.”
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