‘She would want me to carry on’

Matt Mauser (Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Matt Mauser (Photo: Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

There has been perhaps no introduction this America’s Got Talent season that stopped the hearts and dropped the jaws of the judging panel like that of Matt Mauser this week — when the 51-year-old Orange County musician and father of three shuffled humbly onstage Tuesday and stoically stated, “On Jan. 26, 2020, I lost my wife in the same helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant. … It’s been a rough year, but here I am.”

Matt and his wife Christina met in 2004 at one of his “dive bar” gigs, and she soon became his “greatest supporter.” The two were married for 15 years and were both schoolteachers, but when Matt, the frontman for SoCal party band the Tijuana Dogs and a part-time Frank Sinatra impersonator, quit teaching to focus on music, Christina took a job as a girls’ basketball coach at Kobe’s Mamba Sports Academy (which has since been renamed Sports Academy). Matt additionally took a side gig composing music for a children’s podcast produced by Kobe, “The Punies.” Everything changed in an instant last year for Matt’s family, and the families of the six other people who were on board with Kobe and Gianna Bryant that tragic day. But Matt, who has launched the Christina Mauser Foundation in his late wife’s honor to support single mothers, women, and girls in sports, tearily told the AGT judges and host Terry Crews: “[Christina] would want me to carry on. She would want our kids to have happy lives — I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m going to try.”

Matt then dedicated Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds” to Christina, with his children standing in the wings, and it seemed to take everything he had to stay strong and power through the performance — which he almost did, until he broke into tears during that final “take a look at me now” line and backed away from the microphone. (He recently confessed to Access Hollywood that he was initially “reluctant” when he received a call from Fremantle Productions inviting him to audition for AGT, explaining: “I didn’t know if it was something I was ready to do. I was nervous about it… singing in front of people, that many people, and really expressing my emotions. You know, if I’m singing a rock ‘n’ roll song and it’s not really that meaningful, it’s easy to do, but when you’re really singing and you’re singing from your heart, I was a little nervous that I might fall apart.”)

I will admit that, at first, I’d expected or hoped that Matt would let loose a bit more and really ramp up to those American Idol-style power notes at the climax of the tear-jerking, Oscar-nominated power ballad; I got the sense that he was, understandably, holding back so he could stay in control in the moment. But maybe Matt didn’t need to pull out all the stops and bells and whistles and smoke and mirrors. Maybe less was more in his case. He simply told his story, crooning Collins’s pained words as if they were his own; as one YouTube commenter put it, “He didn’t sing. He spoke to his wife through the song. He made it very personal for him and I felt that. He shared his grief, sadness, and loneliness.” The perfectly imperfect performance received a standing ovation.

“We felt your emotion. … There aren’t words to describe it,” marveled Howie Mandel. “There was a different vibe to your voice, and when you were singing it, it went inside of me. It was beautiful, it was sad, and as a man, as a strong man standing there, it was very special,” said Heidi Klum. “Thank you for being here,” Sofia Vergara told Matt softly.

This was not the first time that Matt had used music to heal and process his grief. Last year, two and a half months after the Calabasas crash, he and his eldest child Penny Rose released the duet “Green Bike” as a tribute to Christina. Tragically, the father and daughter had originally planned to debut the song shortly after the Sports Academy’s ill-fated Jan. 26 basketball tournament. Penny was supposed to participate in that tournament, but because she was sick, Matt ordered her to stay home and rest up for their upcoming concert — and Penny therefore wasn’t on the helicopter with her mom that day. The “Green Bike” music video, released to YouTube in April 2020, was the last family video Christina participated in prior to her death. 

This competitive America’s Got Talent season is packed with gifted vocalists, like previous contestants Nightbirde, Jayy, and Jimmie Herrod, plus three major standouts from this week: Madilyn Bailey (a young singer-songwriter who performed a quirky original with lyrics composed entirely of online trolls’ hate comments), Donovan Michael Hoffer (a self-styled Broadway baby with a preternaturally high soprano voice), and Victory Brinker (a 9-year-old, multi-lingual opera prodigy, this Season 16’s answer to Jackie Evancho, who received the series’ first-ever group Golden Buzzer). But whatever happens next for Matt Mauser on AGT, he’s already a winner, because he accomplished what he set out to do, which was make Christina and their kids proud.

“I would like to make sure that my children see that — in spite of the grief that we’ve been through this year — that grief is not going to define who we are as a family, and that my children see that you have to find joy in life, and you have to continue,” Matt declared Tuesday. “If this can in any way help my children to chase their dreams, then I’ll take it.”

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