On Jan. 12, Carlton Smith went about his normal day. He finished his shift as a West Virginia University police officer and then headed to the Coliseum to work extra duty detail for the men’s basketball game against Kansas. He had no idea he would be a viral sensation once the game ended.
A snowstorm had hit Morgantown hard that evening. With roads gridlocked, many fans had to abandon their cars and trek through the snow to make it to the game. One of those who couldn’t make it was the person scheduled to sing the national anthem. Smith said the organizers, who knew he was a vocalist, asked him to step in.
Within five minutes, Smith took the floor. The crowd had no idea that the man in the police uniform could sing — really sing.
“Oh, say can you see,” he began quietly. As the song progressed, its sweet soulfulness entranced the throng as Smith, performing a capella, gradually put it through its paces with an unadorned conviction.
By last line, the crowd was his, punctuating the “Oh!” in the old Baltimore Oriole tradition. He allowed himself to finish with a bit of melisma, a simple embellishment as he began the home stretch with “wave.”
Smith said he’s always a nervous wreck before he performs, and this time was no different, especially without having any time to prepare. It must be added that, lyrically and musically, the tune can be a challenging one, regardless of the artist.
“[I had] no warming up whatsoever, I wish I did,” Smith said. “They got me a bottle of water from one of the cheerleaders nearby.”
His friend, sportswriter Geoff Coyle, posted a picture of him singing the national anthem on Facebook, and immediately friends and family began requesting the video of the performance.
Since Coyle posted the video on YouTube and Facebook, the video has received more than 268,000 views and topped 600 shares.
On Monday morning, he sang the anthem on Fox and Friends in New York City, something he never expected to happen.
“That was amazing, kind of surreal in a way. I wasn’t expecting it at all — I wasn’t expecting any of this to happen,” Smith said. “It was all just a very surreal experience. I’ve tried to embrace it and it was just really fun to do.”
In the past, Smith has won WVU’s Mountaineer Idol talent contest and made it to Hollywood on the Fox network’s “American Idol.”
He’s also no stranger to performing The Star-Spangled Banner. He’s sung at numerous WVU and Morgantown sporting events.
“It feels good because I’ve tried everything to get my name out there, just to be noticed because singing is what I love,” Smith said. “It feels good that finally I’m getting recognition, singing possibly our nation’s greatest song, on a stage at a school that I love, it all felt pretty good.”
Smith said the best part about this experience was that he received such recognition for singing the national anthem, a song that has a special place in his heart.
“I am a police officer because of that — because of that patriotism,” he said. “I think I am a police officer because the people of this country and whatever community I may be in are worth protecting and serving.”
Coyle has been friends with Smith since their freshman year at WVU years ago. Coyle originally posted the video for Smith’s friends and family, but he knew almost immediately that it was going to go viral.
“While I didn’t anticipate it, I completely understand it,” he said. “As West Virginia fans, they have something to be proud of because he’s a graduate. As Americans, I feel that people are very proud to see a member of their law enforcement, with last-minute notice, stepped up to sing the nation’s anthem as well as he did.”
He said while his friend’s fame from the video was unexpected, it makes sense to him.
“Carlton really is one of the kindest and most talented people I’ve ever met,” Coyle said. “He deserves all of the recognition he’s getting and I just hope someone out there in the music industry is paying attention and takes a chance on a police officer in Morgantown, West Virginia.”