"It's so hard to say goodbye," Lee DeWyze told more than 41,000 screaming fans after he finished the ninth song in what was to have been a three-song show Friday at Arlington Park.
And then, he did one more - his own composition "Stay" - before finally leaving the stage just after 8 p.m., capping off an emotional day during which it was sometimes hard to tell who was more in awe, the cheering crowds or DeWyze himself.
The American Idol finalist frequently fought back tears as he worked through a set featuring several of his own songs plus some of his Idol performance highlights like "Hey, Jude" and "The boxer." He started performing Seal's "Kiss from a Rose," then stopped and told the crowd, "You remember what happened the last time I played that," joking about one of his few performances that the Idol judges panned.
But on the whole, he relished the role of rock star, repeatedly telling the crowd how much he appreciated their support.
"I'm not kidding," he said. "This is the best day of my life."
Earlier, he had been mobbed at a four-block parade in downtown Mount Prospect as he and his parents rode in a Mustang convertible up Northwest Highway, followed by cheerleaders and the Prospect High School Marching Knights. Thousands of fans crammed the half-mile stretch of Northwest Highway between Elmhurst and Central roads as the hometown homecoming parade for the 24-year-old Mount Prospect native started off a little more than half an hour late.
DeWyze waved to fans lining both sides of the streets as the car edged slowly forward, then appeared to mouth an emotional "Thank you" as fans broke past barriers and swarmed his car, creating a surging mass of humanity as the vehicle approached Central Road and the paint store where DeWyze worked until his American Idol whirlwind began a few months ago.
At the paint store, DeWyze was expected to greet his old bosses and friends and sign a can of tangelo, which he previously identified on the show as his favorite color.
The parade followed a series of DeWyze appearances, each becoming more frenzied than the one before, beginning with a television appearance at 7 a.m.
Earlier in the afternoon, he had visited first the Forest View Alternative School in Arlington Heights, where he attended high school in addition to attending Prospect High. He told students there that, "I sat in your chair and people told me I was never going to make it."
He also went to St. James Catholic Elementary School in Arlington Heights, where amid deafening cheers, he hugged his first-grade teacher Barbara O'Brien, signed T-shirts and sang, for the second time Friday, "The Boxer," one of his highlight performances as an Idol contestant.
He told the cheering students they were "absolutely the best ever!" He was so moved he launched into a second impromptu song, before leaving to more hugs, screams and high fives.
Earlier, DeWyze looked calm and collected as he walked to the mound at Wrigley Field Friday, wearing a No. 9 Cubs jersey, then tossed out the first pitch to start the Cubs game with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The pitch from the 24-year-old right-hander was a little high, but over the plate, and drew a roar from the crowd, where shirts promoting the American Idol Top 3 finalist weren't nearly as common as those for the home team but were plenty easy to spot nonetheless.
DeWyze pumped his fist in the air - earlier he had said this moment was the one he most looked forward to in a day devoted to celebrating his status on America's most popular television show - then headed toward the suburbs where he's schedule to continue a whirlwind day of appearances.
"It's so good to be home," DeWyze told the Daily Herald as the morning began, worming his way through a 7 a.m. crowd at Michigan and Lake in Chicago to enter the Fox-TV studio
Clearly, the feeling was mutual.
As the American Idol Top 3 finalist and Mount Prospect native tore through a whirlwind morning of television, radio and personal appearances, he was greeted at every stop with cheers, screams and even the occasional marriage proposal.
"It's a little overwhelming, to be honest," he said.
In Mount Prospect at midmorning, people began setting out lawn chairs along Northwest Highway and staking out positions for a four-block motorcade that's not due to begin until 4:30 Friday afternoon.
By 11:30 a.m., as he fought through his emotions to perform "The Boxer," one of his highlight performances on the nation's most popular television show, at the Skokie AT&T store, DeWyze would eventually admit to the approximately 150 fans gathered that "it's been an insane week."
Then, he went on to sing one of his own compositions.
"The fact that you are here to support me means more than I can say," he told the crowd, yelling to be heard over ear-piercing screams. "If it wasn't for you guys, I wouldn't be here. You guys are awesome."
He apologized for having only a little time at the store, but still managed to get out into the crowd to mingle with fans and sign autographs.
Some DeWyze fans were so eager for a glimpse of him in person that they had arrived at the Fox television studios as early as 3 a.m. When an AT&T store representative called out to those waiting in Skokie, "Who wants a Lee DeWyze headshot, an autographed headshot!" the crowd erupted in hungry cheers. Women in the crowd hoisted signs saying, "Marry me, Lee!"
His younger brother Michael, a 2008 Prospect High School graduate, waited along with everyone else but found himself sharing in Lee's celebrity. Turned out, fans wanted even Michael's autograph.
Brian Friedopfer, a longtime DeWyze pal also waited in the Skokie crowd, saying he's hoping to get "a little Lee time" sometime during the day - "maybe a hug in Skokie" and 20 minutes at DeWyze's Arlington Park concert later.
But as DeWyze's limo arrived around 11:15, the Skokie crowd grew silent and Michael and Friedopfer were escorted into the store.
Friedopfer said he got more time with DeWyze in Skokie than he expected, and he's proud of the way his friend has risen to the ongoing challenges of the show.
"He's not getting anything handed to him," Friedopfer said of DeWyze. "He's working hard for it. There's nothing easy about this. He gets three or four hours of sleep a night."
Overwhelmed or not, DeWyze himself appeared to be taking it all in like a seasoned pro. In fact, Q101's Steve Tingle told him as much, declaring "you're a pro already man," as DeWyze chatted across from him wearing trademark tousled hair, a bit of a scruffy beard, brown leather jacket, black T-shirt, jeans and Chuck Taylors.
He was cool and composed at WTMX, but genuinely surprised by friends awaiting him at Q101.
"This is so crazy," he said.
In his media appearances throughout the morning, he tossed out a litany of little personal secrets: The thing he was looking forward to the most Friday is throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field, though he confessed he likes both the White Sox and the Cubs. He's listening to Ben Harper, Kings of Leon and Chris Cornell on his iPod. He wanted to appear on Q101 because he'd been a regular listener. He's single and likely to stay that way for a while. "Doing this kind of thing, you can't have a girlfriend," he said on Q101.
From Skokie, DeWyze left in a black limousine adorned with the American Idol decal, on his way to more scheduled appearances in Arlington Heights and at the Mount Prospect paint store where he worked until his Idol whirlwind began. Following the Mount Prospect parade, he'll do a three-song concert at 6:30 p.m. at Arlington Park.
During his Fox interview, DeWyze, 24, said his world has "flipped upside down" since his Idol run started in February.
"One day I was working in the paint store, and the next I'm here," he said. "I want to enjoy this, and live in the moment. This situation doesn't happen to very many people."
For his Arlington Park concert DeWyze said he will play a cover song, one of his original songs and something from Idol.
Loyal DeWyze fans like Mary Gomulka, of Berwyn and Ashley Noble, of Glen Ellyn, got to the Fox studios at 3 a.m. on Friday to make sure they secured a good spot of pavement to watch DeWyze exit his limo.
"He doesn't know how good he is," said Noble before DeWyze arrived - without taking her eye off the door to Fox studios in case he did.
Daily Herald staff writers Sheila Ahern, Ted Cox, Eric Peterson, Kim Pohl, Debby Donovan, Kathleen Danes, Peter McGrain, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Ashok Selvam and correspondent Eileen Daday contributed to this report.