COLUMBIA — Does a story about a pizza delivery guy from Missouri's Bootheel who becomes a primetime opera-singing sensation sound like a real-life American fairytale to you? It is — courtesy of hard work, talent and David Hasselhoff.
That's just what happened to Neal Boyd, a 2001 MU graduate who was announced the winner of NBC's "America's Got Talent" on Wednesday night.
Boyd premiered in June on the third season of the reality competition show that features an array of performers competing for a $1 million grand prize and a potential headlining gig in Las Vegas. A gaggle of Boyd's supporters gathered in the Clinton Club at Mizzou Arena to watch the show's finale as Boyd and four other acts vied for the winning spot.
Nancy Moen, director of communications for MU's College of Arts and Science, has known Boyd for years and was one of more than 40 people in attendance at the MU-themed watch party.
When Boyd was announced the winner, Moen hollered, "Oh my God! He won! He won! He won!" She later added, "It's like the Heisman trophy in music."
Paul and Pat Ritchie, former MU faculty, knew Boyd since he was an MU student and also came to support him. They were two of 25 Columbia residents invited to travel to Italy with MU's University Choir, of which Boyd was a part, in 2000. They watched Boyd perform with the choir at five different cathedrals throughout Italy.
"He is just an extraordinary young man. He's very easy to know," Pat Ritchie said. "He was a good student. And he's a heck of a tenor. We call him our Tiger tenor."
Boyd, a Sikeston native, transferred to MU from Southeast Missouri State University to study music. Ann Harrell, an MU associate professor of music, had heard of Boyd because of various state singing competitions he won before she began voice-coaching him.
"There's something in the essence of a truly outstanding performer that comes out through their voice, of course, but also in their face," Harrell said. "It's a commitment to music that you cannot teach, you can only refine. Neal has that gift to step up and sell whatever he sings."
After graduating from MU in 2001 with a bachelor of arts degree in music, Boyd hot-footed it out of Columbia to continue his singing career. Moen said Boyd continued studying music and performing and eventually began working for Aflac Insurance in St. Louis.
This spring, Boyd contacted Harrell and asked for a few voice lessons. She didn't know it then, but Boyd was preparing to subject himself to the scrutiny of judges David Hasselhoff, Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne of the show "America's Got Talent," hosted by Jerry Springer. Harrell said she doesn't think she's missed an episode since the show's season premiere in June.
"When you teach music and your student performs well, there's such a sense of pride," Harrell said. "It's been a wonderful experience."
Donna Otto, an MU School of Nursing alumna, said she's followed Boyd's performances from the beginning of the show.
"I'm glad we spent that time putting those 40 votes in last week," Otto said as she gathered her things after the show.