Seventeen-year-old Mary Kate Schoessling has been going to Bears games ever since she was a baby, but last Sunday's contest against the Arizona Cardinals was unlike any other she's attended at Soldier Field.
A senior at St. Charles East High School who plans to major in musical theatre in college, Schoessling sang the national anthem after winning a contest conducted by the Bears that drew 145 entrants.
"I've been going to Bears games ever since I can remember," Schoessling said. "When I was little, I'd always see the national anthem singer and I'd be like, 'Oh my gosh, that's so cool,' and I'd always cheer. That was one of my favorite parts of the whole experience. Getting to actually do that was so insane, such a dream come true, something that I've dreamed of forever."
Schoessling was selected among 10 finalists who were invited to Halas Hall to perform the national anthem twice inside the Walter Payton Center. Judges included Bears public address announcer Tim Sinclair and team reporter Lauren Screeden, among others.
Schoessling delivered sensational renditions, but that wasn't the only reason she was chosen to sing the national anthem at the Christmas Eve game.
"While Mary Kate's vocals were exceptional, the majority of comments I received from the judges were in regards to her personality and warmth when she entered the Walter Payton Center," said Bears director of events and game presentation Katlin Strange. "She stood out from the moment she walked in, and her voice just sealed the deal."
Strange called Mary Kate's mom, Kelly Schoessling, the day before Thanksgiving to inform her that Mary Kate had won the contest. Mary Kate wasn't home, so Kelly called her daughter to relay the exciting news.
"My mom was going crazy," Mary Kate said. "She called me and she's like panting, 'Mary Kate! Mary Kate! Oh my gosh! You did it!' I knew exactly what she was talking about from just the way she was saying it. It was such a great day."
The next day, on Thanksgiving, Mary Kate shared the news with her extended family.
"When I told them, everyone was so excited because both sides of my family are such huge Bears fans," she said.
Mary Kate's father, Dan, shares season tickets with his three brothers.
Mary Kate's parents, brother, two sisters and several relatives and friends attended last Sunday's game to see her perform the anthem in person.
Mary Kate left her home in St. Charles at 9:30 a.m. for Soldier Field. She entered through Gate 14 and walked onto the field through a tunnel to do a sound check at 12:30 p.m., about three hours before kickoff.
"It was just such an amazing experience getting to actually go behind the scenes in the stadium," she said. "It was a completely different view than I normally have going to Bears games. It was beyond exciting."
Scholessling said she never felt nervous, only excited, but conceded that she was getting a little antsy waiting for her moment. She estimated that she's performed the national anthem 20-30 times—including at basketball games and wrestling meets at her high school—but nothing compared to singing it in front of nearly 60,000 people.
"I just tried to take everything in as it was happening," she said. "I just wanted to really live in the moment. Going out for the sound check, I was like, 'Oh wow, this is really cool.' And then when I got to go out there to actually sing on the 50-yard line, it kind of finally hit me and I was like, 'Wow, this is actually happening. There are all these people in the stands. My family is on the field. I have so many friends and family listening,' and it just became so real, and I knew that I just had to execute and do what I love and what I came here to do."
Mary Kate delivered an outstanding rendition of the national anthem, eliciting cheers from the crowd, especially when she nailed a high note with the word "free" in the last line of the song.
The impressive performance wasn't a surprise to those who know her. Mary Kate has been participating in musical theatre since fourth grade and also performs Irish dancing. Asked when she first knew she could sing, she tells a story about being at her brother's orthodontist appointment when she was six years old and singing along with the Adele song "Hello" that was playing in the office.
"I don't really remember this, but my mom tells me about it all the time," Mary Kate said. "I was singing my heart out and the front desk lady turns to my mom and says, 'Did you know she could sing like that? Oh my gosh, she has a voice!'"
After performing the national anthem at Soldier Field, now everyone knows.