Constable: 25 years after shooting, Messmer sings in key of life
If the slumping Chicago Cubs needed inspiration to right their season on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, the guy singing the national anthem provided it. Twenty-five years ago on Tuesday, Wayne Messmer was bleeding from a gunshot wound in his throat, worried that he might die and thinking his voice was silenced forever.
“I was pretty sure it wasn't going to come back,” Messmer said before Monday's performance in front of a packed Wrigley Field. “My left vocal cord was paralyzed 4½ months.”
On April 8, 1994, Messmer had sung his usual uplifting rendition of the national anthem, revving up the cheering, clapping and screaming Chicago Blackhawks hockey crowd in the final season at the old Chicago Stadium. Enjoying the Blackhawk's 6-1 victory over St. Louis, Messmer went to the nearby Hawkeye's Bar and Grill, where fans were in a good mood.
At 1:35 a.m. on April 9, 1994, Messmer got into his car. A 15-year-old boy tapped a 9 mm handgun on his window. Messmer tried to drive off and the boy fired a shot. The bullet shattered the window before ripping into Messmer's neck, near his vocal cords.
He doesn't remember the next 2½ days, but a 10-hour surgery saved his life.
“I remember just holding on to the hope, number one, that I'd live through this,” Messmer says. “I was told it would be a year and a half before I'd know what my speaking voice would be.”
Living in Mount Prospect then with his wife and frequent singing partner, Kathleen, Messmer remembers the moment when he first entertained the idea that he might be able to sing again. Their little dog Squirt was doing something bad, and Messmer yelled, instinctively using his voice without babying it.
“It was back,” Messmer remembers thinking. Six months and five days after he was shot, Messmer, the senior executive vice president of the Chicago Wolves, sang the anthem before a Wolves game on Oct. 14, 1994. He remembers setting goals from his hospital bed if his voice did come back.
“I said I'd like to sing at a World Series game for the Cubs. That was morphine-inspired,” Messmer jokes. He got that chance when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.
Monday's anthem probably was about his 1,500th time performing it at Wrigley Field, says Messmer, who notes that singing this one was special.
When he left home Monday morning, “I hugged Kathleen, left, came back and hugged Kathleen again,” Messmer says, adding that his wife of 35 years wasn't coming with him because she was volunteering as a hospice worker. Messmer arrived three hours before the 1:20 p.m. game time with some emotional baggage.
“You will hear what it would sound like if my heart could sing. You can't sing with a gigantic emotion lump in your throat,” Messmer said, explaining how he's all business when it comes to singing “God Bless America” and the anthem at Wrigley. “But I'm aware of what's happening. As I'm standing here right now, I'm wearing the shoes I wore in the World Series and the shoes I wore the night I was shot. The true value of a moment isn't realized until it becomes a memory.”
The crowd roared as Messmer finished the anthem in one minute, 35 seconds, as he does every time.
He hugged Cubs Manager Joe Maddon on the dugout steps, shook hands with executives and walked through adoring fans on the way to his seat. Smiling and posing for selfies, Messmer changed emotionally when a little girl walked up and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“I'm right on the verge of tears, and she hugs me,” Messmer said, removing his sunglasses and wiping tears from his eyes. He admits that the emotions of the day nearly got to him by the time he got to the “home of the brave.”
“I'm talking about living life with my eyes open, and I'm singing with my eyes closed,” Messmer said. “It's getting me.”
He wrote “The Voice of Victory: One Man's Journey to Freedom Through Healing and Forgiveness.” He's in demand at waynemessmer.com as an inspirational speaker. He's closing in on his 5,000th performance of the national anthem. The sun is shining. And the Cubs beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 10-0.
“To me, it's much more than a ballgame. It's a miracle,” Messmer says. “Oh, oy, oy, oy, I love life.”