(Photo by Josh Mills, Staff)
SIKESTON -- Family and friends of Neal E. Boyd nervously watched the season finale of "America's Got Talent" on Wednesday night, only to erupt in applause when the tenor was crowned the winner.
In what host Jerry Springer called the closest vote in the show's three seasons, Boyd narrowly won the $1 million prize and Las Vegas gig by one-half percent over Eli Mattson, a pianist who also sings.
After the show ended, she kept her cell phone in her hand, waiting for a phone call from her son. Thirty minutes after the show ended, she hadn't spoken to him, but was confident they would speak Wednesday night.
Although Esther Boyd has been to Los Angeles for two of Neal's other performances, she was in Sikeston on Wednesday night, at her son's request. "He wanted me to stay here," she said. "Because he wouldn't be able to protect me" from the frenzy if he won.
(Photo by Josh Mills, Staff)
"Win or lose, we wanted to be together," she said of the reason behind the party.
In commercial breaks, the crowd spoke about who they thought Neal's toughest competition was and recalled the numerous phone calls they made from different numbers to help the tenor go on in the show.
"My finger was sore for two days," York laughed.
During the show, Esther Boyd sat quietly in a chair in the corner of the large living room. Next to her was older son Michael. He and his wife Dawn's four children took turns sitting on her lap or standing next to her.
At each elimination, they family kept their fingers crossed, hoping Neal's name wouldn't be called.
"This is a wreck," York, said after the first contestant, soul singer Queen Emily, was eliminated.
Next eliminated was singer Donald Braswell. And confidence Neal was the winner soared after the third act, Nuttin But Stringz, a violin duo of brothers who mix classical violin training with the rhythms of New York City, were eliminated.
"Hallelujah! He's got it now," screamed York. "The Stringz were his competition and I'm so glad they're gone."
Springer asked both of the final two contestants what winning would mean.
"It would change my life," said Boyd. "I didn't think that I would make it this far. I didn't think people would respond to opera, but they did."
He thanked America for their votes and support.
Mattson, who family members said Boyd has formed a good friendship with, also spoke highly of the tenor.
"No matter what, Neal is going to be around forever," said Mattson.
When Boyd was announced the winner, cheers erupted from those in the room. The participants immediately jumped on their feet, clapping and hugging one another. "He did it!" people screamed.
Esther Boyd appeared to be in shock, and son, Michael, helped her to her feet.
Neal Boyd was in tears, especially after a recorded message from Placido Domingo, a world-renowned operatic tenor.
But, Boyd managed to pull it together for another performance, again singing "Nessun Dorma," which he sang during his audition and in his final performance, while tears streamed down his face.
Many of the group were at first speechless and almost everyone said they were still in shock.
"We are so ecstatic," said Lynn Feeler, a friend and fellow church member. "We were all on the edge of our seats. I'm so tickled for his mother."
But Esther Boyd said she knew all along Neal had the talent to win.
"Neal is a very dedicated person and he usually gets what he goes after," said Esther Boyd.
She thanked the community for all the support over the past four months since the show premiered in June, and especially for their votes in helping Neal be crowned the winner of the show. "I found out that there are so many people that care about Neal and I want to thank everyone for their support," she said.
Friends of Boyd's are planning a community party, including a parade and possibly performance whenever the 1994 Sikeston Senior High School graduate makes it back into town, said Feeler.
But no one is sure when that will be. "He said that if he won, he wouldn't be home for awhile," said Esther Boyd. Neal's first gig in Vegas will be to headline an Oct. 17 show.
Whenever Boyd returns a large turnout is expected in support of his win.
"I think this town has pulled together," said York.
"This community, I feel, has always followed him," said Michael Boyd. And he said the support in other towns -- including Ste. Genevieve, where he now lives, has been amazing and a bit surprising.
When Neal took an interest in opera while they were children, he often told Neal to "knock it off," recalled Michael Boyd. "But I'm so glad he didn't listen to me."
More information about Boyd's Las Vegas performance is available on www.nbc.com.