Dalton Rapattoni is sure about one thing. He's in good company among the top four in American Idol's final episodes.
"I'm not the best singer in the competition, clearly," he said. "When you've got La'Porsha [Renae] and Trent [Harmon] out there, it feels like I'm on a NASCAR racetrack on a tricycle."
His hometown fans think he's right where he belongs. A crowd that just seemed to keep growing gathered on a sun-drenched day at Sunnyvale's Town Center Park to witness his homecoming, which the rest of America can watch during a two-hour episode of American Idol on Thursday night at 7. He's popular enough that organizers had planned for 10,000 people, just in case.
"I didn't think even one quarter of this amount of people would be here," Rappatoni said, ducking that now-famous head of hair.
A rally, parade and concert were quickly planned after it was determined Rapattoni was among the four remaining singers. A digital billboard on 345 shouted, "Welcome Home, Dalton," and signs reading "Sunnyvale Proud" dotted highway exits off Interstate 30E and shoulders of the roads. And, look, there were at least three different types of T-shirts emblazoned with "Team Dalton."
Sheri Maness ended up helping the cheerleaders sell their $10 Team Dalton T-shirts after intentionally missing the parade so she could snag a spot close to the concert stage. A lot of people knew of Rapattoni before Idol because he went to elementary and middle school there, she said.
"My husband and his mother went to high school together," she said, as she directed some teenagers to the corner of the park where the T-shirts with the slogan stamped into an outline of the Great State of Texas could be found. "He's such a good-hearted, down-to-earth kid, so he deserves everything he's worked hard for."
If you were allowed only one phrase to describe Rapattoni, it would be "aw shucks."
He only briefly rode in the American Idol-branded limo. When a visitor mentions his new letterman jacket, he takes it off quickly. He said that it was given to him that day and then ducks his head -- again -- mumbling that he "didn't play sports or anything."
"Even coming back, I wasn't able to stay at my own house. What is it called ... ," he trailed off, and patted himself down for the hotel room key in his pocket. "I'm staying at the Omni."
"It's a super cool place."
He even demurs when it's suggested that his discussion on the show about his bipolar disorder was brave, as was his performance of Sia's "Bird Set Free" after.
"I've been given a platform and I feel like it would be wrong not to use that to maybe do some good," he said. "It's really important that you find someone to look up to that is in similar situations as you.
"There's this singer in a band called Blue October, his name is Justin, and he has bipolar disorder as well ... if I didn't have someone like that, well, I would have said, 'I give up, my brain's broken.' I feel like if I had just taken the platform I was given and not use it for something good, I would have regret it."
He's had plenty of platforms. He's a former member of a boy band, fronts a local band and is a vocal coach at the School of Rock. He's gaining new fans every day.
Like Morgan Davidson, 15, her friend Lindsey McCauley, 16, and her sister Malorie Davidson, 12. The girls were biding time by walking through the field in front of the stage.
"I love watching some of his performances," said Malorie. "I like his song choices." She started ticking them off, including and especially the audition performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" that earned Rapattoni his Golden Ticket.
Morgan interjected, "She's obsessed." But, back to that day's big event ...
"I hope he sings something soulful," Malorie said with a smile.
When Rapattoni finally walked to the stage last week -- festivities were running behind schedule -- cellphones and cameras followed his every move.
"You guys have exceeded my expectations exponentially," he told the crowd after running through six songs including "Rebel Yell" and "Eleanor Rigby."
He hasn't exceeded his own. Rapattoni may be respectful of his competition but he's not ceding anything to them.
"I do play to my strengths. My only goal in any song that I do on the show is that I can invoke some sort of emotion," he said. "I have a minute and 30 seconds every week to tell America my story with someone else's words. ... I don't try to compare myself with anyone else. For me, I'm just trying to tell my story as long as I can."
And American Idol judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. have liked his story-telling through song choices, too, and the artistry involved in how he changes them to suit his style. They have been vocal about it.
"The judges have just been pounding into me every round that I just need to keep being myself," he said. "Every time I've tried to stray out and do something different that wasn't necessarily me, it's ended in failure. 'Radioactive,' for example, [was] my worst week, but that was because I was doing what other people were telling me to do. After that, you know what, if I'm gonna be eliminated, at least I'm gonna be eliminated on a song that I love."
He has some secret weapons to counter the toll that a grind like American Idol can take on a singer.
"I take a lot of naps," he said, laughing.
"The biggest thing I've learned is that if you can be yourself throughout an experience like this and if you can be yourself throughout life, you're not going to have any regrets."
There he goes again. Aw shucks.