Talk to teachers and former students at Gibbs High School about Michael Lynche, the towering 26-year-old St. Petersburg native who performs Wednesday as part of American Idol's Top 24 semi-finalists, and the same words keep coming up.
Loyal. Hardworking. Naturally talented. And a gentle giant.
"You might see him at a distance and say, 'How spooky is that guy?' " said voice teacher Phyllis Gessler of Lynche, a personal trainer and onetime standout football player whose size has already earned him the nickname "Big Mike" on the show. "But what a teddy bear of a person he was."
Lynche attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts magnet at Gibbs High School, graduating in 2001 after a high school career spent balancing achievements on the football field with work on the stage.
Former PCCA teacher Ron DeBeck worked with Lynche for four years as his vocal teacher and director. He recalled a confident, talented student who already had lots of performing experience, snagging the lead role in one of the school's productions as a freshman.
"The more I got to know him, I saw he could play any (instrument) he picks up, and could make any song his own," said DeBeck, who now teaches in Toronto. "When you get nervous onstage, you really have to rely on technique and training. … You see all these other people (on Idol) crying and losing it, and here's Mike just taking care of business."
Longtime friend Melissa Skinner, now 27, remembered meeting Lynche during their freshman year, eventually teaming with the singer years later to complete their senior project, a selection of performances from the musical I Do! I Do!
They grew close enough that Skinner's family allowed Lynche to sleep there when conflicts with his mother, Michele, flared at his own home. Skinner said Lynche still calls her mother on Mother's Day, grateful for the help he got in high school.
"I have no idea how he balanced all the things in his life," said Skinner, now working as a lawyer in Chicago. "But he was a prodigy."
Lynche also met his wife-to-be, Christa Angelelli, at PCCA, where she studied the technical side of theater. Viewers of Idol's Hollywood Week auditions saw Christa give birth to the couple's first child in New York while Lynche was completing auditions for the show.
Skinner kept in touch with Lynche as he moved on to the University of Central Florida, where he played football for a couple of years before his mother's illness prompted him to move back to St. Petersburg.
When Lynche's mother, Michele, a former community columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, died of pancreatic cancer in 2004, Skinner said he seemed to become even more focused on music, eventually moving to New York with his wife.
Even Lynche's time on American Idol is not without precedent in his family. Older brother Marque Jr. was eliminated from the show just before reaching the Top 12 in 2004.
Gessler wondered if Marque's experience might not have helped Michael, if only by example. "Marque did musical theater kind of stuff, which seemed to hurt him," she said. "So maybe Michael has benefited from Marque's loss."
And now that Lynche is about to live the dream of so many youths at PCCA, theater department chairman Keven Renken uses his former student as a powerful example.
"I always tell people, 'Don't give up on this,' " Renken said. "If a career in performing is really there inside you, it will eventually come out."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.