First responders will always have a special place in Wayne Messmer's heart.
When the Chicago Wolves executive sees his team take the ice this weekend in special first responders jerseys, it will become quite personal for him.
"This is a personal thing," said Messmer, the Wolves' senior executive vice president. "Knowing full well that I can still vividly recall the faces of Bill and Henry, the two guys that came to my aid at a time when my own response to what had gone on was disbelief … you're in shock in a moment like that because it doesn't happen to you. You've never met a first responder before. But then you do and every moment after that, should you survive, you thank God that you've met them.
"You're very vulnerable. So those people who come as the first responders, in whatever the situation it is, they're walking into someone else's nightmare. They have to meet you at a place they've been sent to, to get you out of there. That's a great skill, and those who do it are the true heroes among us."
Many longtime Chicago-area residents know Messmer's story. In April 1994, he was shot in the neck on Chicago's near west side after a Blackhawks game at Chicago Stadium, where he sang the national anthem. The Bill and Henry to whom Messmer referred are Bill Steiner and Henry Hugel, the Chicago Fire Department first responders who helped save Messmer's life.
For both games this weekend (7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday) and on Jan. 17 at Allstate Arena, Wolves players will wear specially designed first responder jerseys to raise money for the 100 Club of Chicago, the 5-11 Club Chicago and Chicago Wolves Charities.
The 100 Club of Chicago provides financial assistance for the families of Cook County police officers, firefighters and paramedics who lost their lives in the line of duty. The 5-11 Club's top mission is to supply support service units to all emergency responders at extra-alarm fires.
Under the leadership of senior vice president of operations Courtney Mahoney, the Wolves have worn several specialty jerseys over the years and auctioned them off for various charities.
The first responders jerseys will be available for auctions and raffles, and the team also produced a jersey for Messmer as a tribute to Steiner and Hugel.
"It's a great thing," Hugel said, displaying the humility typical of men and women in this lifesaving line of work. "We have a lot of stories to tell from our jobs. When people hear about Wayne Messmer, I say, 'Yeah, I happened to be working that night.' It was all timing. We were just two blocks from Cook County Hospital, which has one of the best trauma centers in the world."
Messmer's recovery from the gunshot wound was nothing short of miraculous. Over the years, he has become famous for his singing of the anthem, first at Blackhawks games and then at Wolves games, Cubs games and other events, including the recent Bears-Packers contest at Soldier Field.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Messmer's voice became barely a rasp, but listening to him today, most people would figure he never missed a beat.
He figures the last 20 years have been nothing short of a blessing.
"Absolutely," he said. "There's no question that people have looked at me -- doctors -- and said, 'We have no medical explanation on how you can possibly be doing what you're doing at the level that you're doing it.' And I'm not saying it from an ego standpoint. But when I speak, and I can hear the radio-announcer voice, it shouldn't be happening. When I sing … I listen to it, and I can't believe it. When I'm reproducing it, whether it's at Soldier Field, it's an out-of-body experience."
Messmer, who also works as a financial planner and hosts a Sunday evening jazz show on WDCB radio (90.9 FM), does not mind talking about his experience and the stages of life it has brought him through.
"I look at it as being given that gift, and having had it at a really nice level and had it stolen, but it came back," he said. "It came back. Then when you start asking 'why,' what do you do with it? I think you share the voice, and you share the story. I can tell you that it's remarkable, and to the point of what I'm hearing, miraculous. But it's good. It's a good story, and it touches people.
"And I always tell it with as much humility as possible because you get past the victimization stuff. It gave me a platform to talk about some very real issues, not the least of which is faith and the structure of family and also true friendship and ultimately coming to the level of forgiveness, which is another issue I dealt with.
"Now, because time has passed, I've been able to reflect on the, 'Why did I get better?' and not 'Why did it happen?' And it's powerful."