One tradition at the men’s Final Four brings together four student-athletes – one from each school – to sing the national anthem before the semifinals. This year in New Orleans, the singers were Kansas women’s golfer Hanna Hawks, Duke women’s soccer player Delaney Graham, North Carolina football’s Kaimon Rucker and Villanova men’s swimming and diving’s Charlie Hinckley.
For each, the opportunity brought a mixture of surprise, excitement, nerves and gratitude. Learn a little bit about each student-athlete below:
Delaney Graham, Duke
Graham has performed in Carnegie Hall, Cameron Indoor Arena and countless high-pressure soccer matches. But representing Duke at the Final Four alongside three other student-athletes?
“Getting to come here on this big of a stage and be the one person selected to sing from my school is unthinkable,” Graham said of the opportunity. “It’s just amazing.”
Her success on and off the field could be described the same way. An Academic All-American with plans to attend medical school and an All-ACC talent on the pitch, Graham also brought her musical talents to Duke as part of the school’s Lady Blue a cappella group. The group even released an EP in 2020 called “Dandelion.” Graham also has sung the national anthem at Duke men’s basketball, baseball and soccer games. It’s another way of carrying over a passion from high school that included being a finalist in the Honors Performance Series, performing with other singers from all over the world at Carnegie Hall.
“I’ve really created a strong bond with those girls (from Lady Blue),” Graham said. “I’ve really enjoyed having that as part of my life and just keeping music as part of my life.”
Hanna Hawks, Kansas
Hawks was raised in Kansas rooting for the Jayhawks, which made her “super thrilled” for the opportunity to play golf there. She also grew up singing in church and school choirs, describing herself as “your classic theater girl.”
The mixture of talents brought about the chance to sing on a much bigger stage in front of 70,000-plus fans at the Caesars Superdome and millions more watching the broadcast. The sophomore said it was representative of her student-athlete experience as a whole, summed up by the word “opportunity.”
“College athletics has been the biggest blessing I could have imagined. I was not sure at first if I wanted to pursue college athletics, but I got the opportunity to and jumped on it. I can confidently say it’s changed the path of my life , and I’m so grateful for all of the people that I’ve met along the way that have poured into me and the future that I’m building. “
Charlie Hinckley, Villanova
When Hinckley sang the national anthem at the Final Four, he felt like he was representing two teams at Villanova: the men’s swimming and diving team and the Supernovas, an a cappella group he’s part of that recently secured a spot at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella finals in New York at the end of the month.
“It means a lot,” he said of the opportunity. “To be able to represent with singing, a cappella and also through my sport, it’s such a crazy thing that I’m able to do and I’m so blessed to be able to do it.”
A sophomore at Villanova double majoring in finance and real estate, Hinckley said managing his college experience has been challenging and has required a “lot of time management” and “sacrificing.” But it’s been worth it, he added.
“I’ve been so grateful for all of the opportunities given to me,” he said. “It’s definitely something that I’m so grateful to have. I could never trade it for anything else.”
Kaimon Rucker, North Carolina
Rucker did not grow up as a regular in organized choir or theater settings like his counterparts. The junior linebacker’s music background is rooted in his church and his parents.
“My mom and dad listened to all sorts of music. I was in the choir for a little bit when I was in high school. I sang in my church choir when I was little, but I’ve never been in a club to where we go on national stages and sing. I’ve never been in a choir class. I’ve never been in anything like that, “he said. “It’s just something I’ve always been blessed with.”
As someone accustomed to performing in front of tens of thousands every Saturday, Rucker admitted the Final Four national anthem brought slightly different levels of nerves. Specifically, he did not have his helmet and other gear to protect him. Still, he tackled his part of the performance with grace.
“It’s honoring that I’m getting to represent my school in this type of way,” he said. “The fact that I’m getting to do it at one of the grandest stages in college basketball in a forum of singing, it’s a blessing. I could not have written this any other way.”