KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Recently freed Kevin Strickland helped light the Mayor’s Christmas Tree at Kansas City’s Crown Center on Friday night.

Strickland was invited after Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu canceled last minute due to scheduling conflicts.

“I was honored to receive it. I felt it was a pretty good deal. I was excited about it. I couldn’t turn it down,” Strickland said. “This is an experience I’ve never experienced before in my life. It was wonderful.”

Released from prison just three days ago, Strickland is still adjusting to life on the outside after more than 40 years behind bars.

On Tuesday, a judge ruled he should be freed after serving time for a 1978 triple murder he has always said he didn’t commit.

“What it was like last year? There are no words for that. It’s a memory I’m trying to shove out the back door,” Strickland said. “This was a lot. I didn’t think it was that kind of love in Kansas City. I remember Kansas City from 1978.”

Mayor Quinton Lucas called Strickland one of the greatest honorees in the history of this celebration.

“This is one step in the journey. Mr. Strickland has a lot of life to live. We are going to make sure you Kansas City is here to support you,” Lucas said. “This is what the Mayor’s Christmas Tree is about, 113 years talking about, helping our friends, our neighbors.”

Besides the thousands of people eager and excited for the return of the event, which was virtual in 2020, others came to welcome Strickland back home.

“The day that he was released, I cried all day and the day after that, to thank God he was free,” said Beverly Johnson, who lived in Strickland’s childhood neighborhood.

The mayor’s 100-foot-tall tree is one of the tallest in the country and will stay up at Crown Center through Jan. 3.