Growing up in Philadelphia, Mishael Miller had always dreamed about singing the national anthem before a sporting event. He would always watch intently before 76ers, Eagles and Phillies games.
The first time Miller stepped to the microphone to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Memorial Stadium, his palms perspired and his mind raced with thoughts of forgetting the words.
It was before the Ravens franchise’s inaugural game on Sept. 1, 1996.
“I was scared,” Miller said. “I just wanted to do it one time. I didn’t realize it would become a tradition.”
Miller has been singing the national anthem before Ravens games ever since. He’s become a beloved Baltimore institution.
But this Sunday, before the Ravens take on the New England Patriots, Miller will belt out his swan song.
Miller is moving to Birmingham, Ala., to become the senior pastor at the St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. The Ravens will have to find another singer.
“I wish I could bring the Ravens to Birmingham,” Miller said. “I’m going to miss the Ravens. They’ve been a part of my life for the last 18 years.”
Miller was born and groomed to sing. In third grade, a teacher encouraged him to take a test that sent him to a music school. Then he went to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts in the mid ‘80s.
After hearing the famed Morgan State University Choir, he attended school there in the early ‘90s. The beautiful baritone studied opera and classical, but was more interested in the music of his roots – gospel.
While singing gospel is his passion, it’s more than just music. Miller started preaching when he was 19 years old and has always been involved in the church. After getting his music degree, he attended the Howard University School of Divinity, earning a master’s degree in 2006.
He’s long been the assistant pastor at The Pennsylvania Avenue A.M.E. Zion Church. He’s always rushed out after church to reach M&T Bank Stadium in time for 1 p.m. Sunday games.
It was Miller’s Morgan State connections that landed him with the Ravens. The Ravens had the school’s marching band to perform at the inaugural game, and asked the band director if he knew anyone that could sing the anthem. Miller was recommended.
Ravens Senior Vice President of Media and Community Relations Kevin Byrne was one of a few making the decision on who would sing the anthem. He remembers it being an easy decision.
Miller had local ties, and boy could he sing.
“I remember his powerful voice,” Byrne said. “And he seemed to be a very reverential and respectful person. He seemed to have humility. The real key was he could do a one-minute anthem and he could do a two-minute anthem.”
After Miller’s inaugural performance, late Owner Art Modell told one of his sons that he wanted Miller to sing it all the time. “He said, ‘If you go to a restaurant and you like the food, you keep going back,’” Miller recalled.
So Miller has sung and sung and sung, delighting Ravens fans close to 200 times over the years. He’s only missed a handful of games because of guest singers, and once when he got stuck abroad.
Miller’s greatest attribute may be his dependability.
He delivers a beautiful, yet commanding rendition of the song every time. He doesn’t add a whole lot of jazz, appealing to star-spangled purists of the world.
Miller’s style has changed a bit over the years, however. At one point, Art’s son, John, asked him if he could “loosen it up a bit.” Miller didn’t mind. But he’s come back a bit to a more traditional version of the song while still giving it his usual gusto.
“For me, it’s supposed to be a very big sound,” he said. “I take great joy in rendering it that way.”
Miller not only hits the incredibly difficult song time after time, but he also does it within very strict time requirements. The Ravens would be fined if the anthem isn’t finished before TV returns from commercial break. So Miller has often had to speed it up on the fly.
One of his fondest memories is from a few years ago when a scheduled flyover was late arriving. He had to hold a final note for about 30 seconds.
“I think his eyes were crossed,” joked Megan Collins, who has had the job of alerting Miller of how much time he has. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to run out of breath.’ He held it. It was a sight to behold, that’s for sure.”
Fans have heard Miller for 18 years and still erupt in huge applause when he finishes. They recognize him around town and he’s part of local sports trivia. When the Ravens announced this would be his last performance, one fan asked whether Miller would be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor.
“People say I’ve become a hometown favorite and I guess it is true,” Miller said. “The fans have been amazing.”
Miller still gets chills from the fans and the song when he performs.
“It’s so magical and mystical. It’s so moving,” Miller said of the song, which was written by Francis Scott Key at Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812.
“Although I’ve done it so many times, you can’t rest on what you did and how you felt the last time. You’ve got to make each one meaningful and count each time.”
Now, as Miller prepares for his final performance, he’s a bit emotional.
He’ll also sing at halftime for the first time, belting out his rendition of “Let It Snow.” But his national anthem will be one to treasure.
“Wow. Bittersweet. Bittersweet,” Miller said. “I’m already there mentally; I’m just waiting for the moment. I’ve already had to say goodbye to several entities in the community, and this will probably be the last one.”