TAMPA — Sonya Bryson-Kirksey has lived every day of the past 16 months knowing she had a “bull’s-eye” on her.
Multiple sclerosis and other underlying health issues make the Lightning’s U.S. national anthem singer more susceptible to illness and put her particularly at risk to the coronavirus.
Though she has been vaccinated, the virus still reached her last week. She was admitted to a hospital with COVID-19 pneumonia. Four days earlier, she celebrated the Lightning’s second straight Stanley Cup championship July 12 with other fans at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa.
“(This) is probably the sickest I’ve been in my entire life,” Bryson-Kirksey, 54, of Riverview said in a text message to the Tampa Bay Times. “Breathing is hard. Talking is hard. … I’m fighting to keep my life.”
Bryson-Kirksey said she became fully vaccinated in March. She said she suspects she may have contracted the coronavirus from someone at the celebration who didn’t they know they had it.
“People who don’t get vaccinated are the carriers of these variants and they never even know,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “They need to know COVID pneumonia is not your sister’s home-bound mild case. My life has been on the line here since I arrived last Friday with a 103(-degree) fever.”
Bryson-Kirksey, who worked as an Air Force technical sergeant before retiring in 2015, has been singing the U.S. anthem before Lightning games at Amalie Arena for the past eight seasons. She has become as synonymous with the organization as the players and coaches.
Before the Lightning competed in the Canadian bubbles during the 2020 postseason, the organization recorded her voice — days after she had knee surgery — and sent the audio to Edmonton and Toronto to play ahead of “home” games. After the season, the team recognized her contributions with a Stanley Cup championship ring.
She is one of the team’s most vocal and visible supporters, is instantly recognizable to fans, and is well-loved in the organization and the Tampa Bay community.
“Sonya is a beloved and important member of our Lightning family, and an integral part of our game night experience,” John Franzone, vice president of game presentation for the Lightning, said in a statement to the Times. “We’re wishing her the best and praying for a speedy recovery.”
Local artist Matt Shapiro met Bryson-Kirksey at the start of the Lightning’s 2021 postseason run. The St. Petersburg native wanted to collaborate on a T-shirt to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis and had interacted with her a few times before pitching the idea to her.
He said encountering her for the first time was like “meeting a sister I’ve always had that I’ve never known.”
“The energy and her passion for MS and her passion for the community and just living (was instant),” said Shapiro, who owns the apparel business 1771 Designs. “You say hello to her and it’s not just a, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’
“It’s energetic, and I was telling people it was one of the most impactful 15-minute interactions I’ve ever had in my life. You immediately want to help her. You immediately want to become her best friend. Her energy just kind of consumes you.”
Since news about Bryson-Kirksey’s hospitalization spread, there has been an outpouring of love and well-wishes on social media.
Lightning in-game host Greg Wolf, who has worked with Bryson-Kirksey for eight seasons, said he was blown away by the response from the local community and foreign fans when he asked for prayers for his friend and colleague.
“To see the messages and the support and the prayers coming in from all over, it’s been overwhelming,” Wolf said.
“I told her, ‘Mama, I know you don’t feel great, but when you have a moment, check your Twitter and Facebook, and see the prayers and love that’s coming to you from every angle. And I hope that that’s a smidgen of strength that you can gravitate toward to pull you through (this).’ "
Bryson-Kirksey has been lauded for the tone of her singing, a lifelong hobby.
She started in choral groups in high school before taking part in an American Idol-like event at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., where she was stationed. Her second-place finish reassured her of her talent.
In 2013, she was offered an audition to sing for the Lightning. She and organist Krystof Srebrakowski dabbled for 15 minutes to find Bryson-Kirksey’s key before she ran through the anthem three or four times. Afterward, Franzone asked if she could attend that Saturday’s game.
The rest is history, she said.
Suffering from a sore throat on the day of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final against the Canadiens, Bryson-Kirksey dropped her microphone below her mouth and let the crowd help sing the anthem.
At the end of the night, the Lightning hoisted their second straight Stanley Cup.
From her hospital room, Bryson-Kirksey asked the community to help lift her up one more time.
“Implore people not to let their pride stand in the way of getting vaccinated to protect the people like me who really can’t fight for themselves,” she said.
Cards and/or letters can be sent to her in care of the Lightning at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive Tampa, FL 33602.
A GoFundMe account has been created to help provide financial relief for Bryson-Kirksey and her family.
Contact Mari Faiello at email@example.com. Follow @faiello_mari.
• • •
The Tampa Bay Times will commemorate the Lightning’s second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a new hardcover coffee table book, Striking Twice. Pre-order now.
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.