At the start of the very first Ravens game, back in Memorial Stadium, a recent graduate of Morgan State University stepped forward to sing the national anthem, burnishing the words with his velvety baritone.
Since then, through good seasons and bad, Mishael Miller has sung "The Star-Spangled Banner" at nearly every home game. His voice has become a part of the experience of attending a Ravens game — something as authentically Baltimore as the plush purple seats and the song itself, which was, of course, written here.
On Sunday, Miller will lift his voice one last time in Ravens M&T Bank Stadium. After 18 seasons, he is moving on, heading south to Birmingham, where he will become the pastor of a congregation.
"It's a very emotional time for me," said Miller, whose voice is nearly as sonorous when speaking as singing. "I have a lot of memories behind me."
Although Miller has not personally met the members of the team, they, as well as their fans, feel a personal connection to him.
"Man, he's awesome," Ravens kicker Justin Tucker — himself an opera singer — said of Miller this week. "It's hard not to get a little jacked up when he's doing the "Star-Spangled Banner" before the game and all the fans come in and say 'O.' It's a pretty cool thing to be part of."
Coach John Harbaugh praised Miller's "phenomenal efforts."
"I think the world of him," Harbaugh said. "It's been an honor standing on the sideline when he sings the national anthem."
Fans, many of whom took to Twitter and Facebook to express sadness at Miller's departure, said the singer's rendition had become the definitive version of the anthem for them.
"I pay more attention to the lyrics when he sings it," said Kelly Connelly, 40, a nonprofit worker who lives in Charles Village. "There's an understated power about the way he sings it, so it's really about the song."
As a season ticket holder since the team's inception, Cheryl Goodell, 68, a retired substitute teacher from Fallston, has heard most of Miller's 180-some performances at home games.
"It makes me feel so patriotic," Goodell said. "I put my hand over my heart and my husband takes off his hat."
Goodell said she sometimes travels to watch Ravens games on the road, and Miller trumps most of the singers in other stadiums.
He was even better, she said, than Zendaya, the Disney Channel starlette who sang the anthem last month, one of the rare home games at which Miller did not sing.
That Miller would have sung for crowds of tens of thousands for seventeen years, would surprise those who saw him sing publicly for the first time as a small child, in front of the congregation in Philadelphia in which he was raised. He cried.
Afterwards, Miller recalled, his father asked him why he was frightened in front of a crowd when he sang so beautifully at home. A short time later, Miller and his sister sung a duet, "Up Where We Belong," and he began to understand he had a gift for public performances.
He sang in high school and as soloist for the Morgan State Choir. It was his former choir director there who recommended that Miller sing at that first game at Memorial Stadium.
Kevin Byrne, senior vice president of the Ravens, said the team leadership quickly decided that they wanted Miller to sing at each home game.
"We wanted a singer who can bring the right amount of reverence to the song," he said. Miller's powerful voice and "ability to lift … the audience to the meaning of the words" made him a perfect choice, Byrne said.
Miller said the first performances in front of such a vast crowd made him nervous, but, over time, he learned to focus on a clock or a flag rather than the sea of faces before him.
He sings in deeply resonant tones, his diction precise. His chest puffs out and his voice rumbles more richly as he sings, "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air," which, he says, is his favorite line.
"At that part of the song, there is a change in the range, and … a wonderful union of the melodic line and the right words," he said.
Miller honed a unique talent while singing at the games — the ability to stretch the song to fit the allotted time.
For some games, he must sing quickly, since the anthem must be over before the network broadcasts begin, Byrne said. At other times, Miller must linger over the words, elongating the song so that it lasts until planes fly over the stadium.
"Sometimes, he has to make it as quick as a minute and other times he needs to stretch it out as long as two minutes," Byrne said.
Miller has also had to sing the anthem in all sorts of weather, from the steamy heat of preseason games to snowy days later in the season. He's even managed to belt out the anthem while suffering from colds.
"While I might have felt horrible, on those occasions fans say, 'That was you best performance ever,'" he said.
On many Sundays, Miller's performance at the Ravens game is actually the third time he has sung for the day.
He sings at two morning services at the Pennsylvania Avenue AME Zion Church, where he served as minister of music from 1999 to 2009, and for the past four years as assistant pastor.
Now Miller, who is single, is about to lead Birmingham's Saint Luke AME Zion Church.
Boxes are stacked in his downtown apartment, and his heart is heavy with the thought of leaving the city that has been his home for the past quarter-century.
Byrne said the team plans to salute Miller at Sunday's game with a video tribute and the gift of a commemorative game ball. The Ravens have yet to determine how to find a successor, he said.
When asked who he thought should be chosen to sing, Miller said he was sure the right person would come forward.
"One thing I know is God has a plan and everything is going to be all right," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.
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