Grating anthems spurred Wilkinson to take the mike
By Mark Wineka
Neal Wilkinson started singing as a youngster with his parents and two older brothers. He performed his first solo when he was 6 years old, and gospel singing became part of his DNA.
He also has performed regularly in the First Baptist Church choir and has sung everything from Broadway to classical music through the years, performing with the likes of Piedmont Players and the Salisbury Symphony.
But he really didn’t start singing patriotic songs and the national anthem at public venues until the 1990s. He said he became tired of hearing people destroy the anthem, and the final straw came when he and Sandra attended a Charlotte Hornets basketball game.
“The guy singing the anthem embarrassed me, and I was sitting in the stands,” Neal said.
His first chance to sing the anthem at a ballpark came at a Charlotte Knights minor baseball game after he made an impression at an open audition.
“A girl with a clipboard came over and said, ‘How many games can you do this year?’ ” Wilkinson remembered.
It launched Wilkinson into what can be described as an unusual pastime.
He has sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Atlantic Coast Conference basketball and baseball games, minor league hockey games, minor league baseball games, Arena Football, American Legion baseball games, NASCAR events and the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters banquet for 13 years running.
Wilkinson sang the national anthem before some 160,000 people live at a Busch race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which included a television audience worldwide.
He also has gotten up early in the morning to sing at national bass fishing tournaments on Lake Wylie in South Carolina.
His job and singing have taken him to Las Vegas, where he did the national anthem for the International Business Show, and to Boise, Idaho, where he performed for the National Association of State Park Directors. That gig also led to singing in Witchita, Kan., and Williamsburg, Va.
The connections he made with sportscasters and writers at the NSSA banquet allowed him to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium in 1999, the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards in 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Banc One Ballpark in 2005 and now the Great American Ball Park in Cincy.
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Wilkinson prepares for anything to happen when he sings at a major league ballpark, because it usually does.
At Shea Stadium, he had to deal with a 3-second delay between when he was singing and when the words came out over the public address system.
In Baltimore, his microphone cut off twice.
In Phoenix, he sang from home plate facing out toward two huge scoreboards. One scoreboard had spelled his name wrong. The other one was showing him live as he performed, something which is pretty distracting, he discovered.
He never gets to warm-up at the major league venues before singing.
He goes through the song quietly a few times in his head during the hours leading up to his performance.
Don’t ask him about the danger of drawing a blank on the words. That’s bad luck, a no-no.
He doesn’t wear a ballcap of the team he’s singing for because during the anthem, of course, he would have to take it off. That’s why he usually wears a shirt with the team’s insignia.
Wilkinson said he wants to be singing gospel music and the national anthem as long as he can. As for major league parks, he dreams especially of singing the anthem at the Atlanta Braves’ Turner Field, the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park and the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field.
Wilkinson said the anthem should be sung the way it was written, not with a lot of interpretation.
The anthem, flag and country are important to him, he said, and he always considers it an honor to be asked to sing the song.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said. “It’s just what I enjoy doing.”