PHILADELPHIA, Miss. – Marcus Dupree left here destined to be the greatest football player ever. He returned over the weekend as a pro wrestler looking for a new start.
There he was, a burly grandfather all dressed up in Oklahoma red, dropping make-believe elbows on pretend bad guys. Somehow you knew Dupree's long strange journey would end like this, sharing a bill with characters like the Krypt Keeper and the Albino Rhino.
The rasslin' extravaganza on the outskirts of town pretty much lived down to expectations. The surprising thing was the main attraction didn't.
"I'm happy, I'm living, I'm healthy," Dupree said.
That's great, but most of us figured he would want more out of life at age 46. It's hard to imagine Tom Brady happily swinging a folding chair as Gisele Bundchen sits ringside. But you and I and Tom and Giselle aren't from around these parts.
Most of us look at Dupree and see a story in search of a happy ending. Saturday night's event was billed as "REDEMPTION."
How could it be found chasing clowns around a wrestling ring at the Neshoba County Coliseum?
The last time Dupree performed in front of a hometown crowd was Nov. 13, 1981. He scored his 87th career touchdown for Philadelphia High, breaking Herschel Walker's national record. You probably know the rest of the story.
Dupree signed with Oklahoma. He made second-team All American as a freshman and gained 239 yards in an abbreviated Fiesta Bowl appearance. Conflicts ensued. When Barry Switzer gets on you for a lack of discipline, you know you have issues.
Dupree left Oklahoma, signed with the USFL and injured his left knee. He came back five years later for a couple of nondescript seasons in the NFL.
He was the best that never was.
That was the title of a recent ESPN documentary on Dupree. With its grainy footage of the young football Hercules, the film rekindled the legend. The name Dupree is now a metaphor for unfulfilled promise.
Greg Oden is the Marcus Dupree of basketball players. Solar is the Marcus Dupree of fuels. Soccer is the Marcus Dupree of sports.
"Damn you, Marcus," Switzer wrote in his autobiography. "You could have been the greatest to ever play the game."
Dupree has blown his millions of dollars. He's been a nightclub owner, a casino greeter, a small-time entrepreneur and a truck driver. Lately he's been working for BP, helping clean up the Gulf oil spill.
All that, and there is no damn-me in Dupree.
He's never taken himself or his plight as seriously as everybody else. Maybe it's naïveté, or maybe you just have to be from here to understand.
"My mom was school teacher. My grandpa was a minister and my grandma worked on a farm," Dupree said. "I knew this thing was only last so long. Playing football is damn quick. So I'd better find something else to do."
Yeah, but pro wrestling?
"It's just a show," Dupree said. "It's something I enjoy, seeing kids with smiles on their faces. My competitiveness is getting people in the door and making sure kids and everyone has a good time."
It was three hours before Saturday night's bout, and his four grandkids were gleefully bouncing around the ring in the empty coliseum. Dupree wasn't just the headliner this past weekend, he was co-promoting the bouts.
Rasslin' was a regional venture until Vince McMahon constructed the WWE monster. It's slick and successful, but The Rock is never going to show up at Neshoba County Auditorium. Dupree saw an unmet appetite, so he's started The New Mid-South Wrestling.
He hopes to get a circuit going in rural towns where there isn't a whole lot else to do on a Saturday night. Philadelphia has about 8,000 people about 90 miles northeast of Jackson. The tallest structure is a blue water tower off Main Street.
The town is known for two things. Dupree and the civil rights struggle.
Three young men helping register black voters were killed by the Klan in 1964. Dupree was a month old when it happened. The murders became a national rallying cry for reform. Around town the kid raised by a single mother did more to advance tolerance than any march.
Everybody pulled for the Philadelphia High Tornadoes, and along came Dupree. He could bench press 400 pounds and run a 4.3 40-yard dash. The recruiting lust was unprecedented.
Author Willie Morris wrote a book about it. He described Dupree's last game as having one of "the most distinctive crowds I had ever seen ... four thousand or so people seemed almost an equal mix of whites, blacks, and Indians."
When Dupree scored his 87th touchdown, Cecil Price Sr. jumped up and cheered.
"Ain't that a kick in the pants," the old man said.
Price was the sheriff accused of handing the three civil rights workers over to the Klan 17 years earlier.
"Marcus is a mender. He brought down the wall between blacks and whites," Jerry Wilkerson said. "Everybody bonded to him. He has a heart of gold and never met a stranger."
Wilkerson has known Dupree since they were kids. If you ask him about his friend's unfulfilled promise, you get a blank stare. Friendly, but blank.
The could'a-would'a-should'a just doesn't register around here. Wilkerson and his old friend had lunch Saturday, and Dupree told him what the wrestling card was really about.
"I want to do something for the community," he said.
Maybe it's as simple as that. Maybe Dupree's mission in life was always just to show people like Price that black kids can have hearts of gold. Everything that followed was gravy.
"Well, it's just life," Dupree said. "It goes on after you quit playing. You've got to keep doors open. Very few people get second chances. I took a second chance. I made up my mind and asked God to give me strength. He gave me strength to work out hard for three months."
He's still built like a water oak, but now he moves like one. Dupree tried pro wrestling in the mid-90s but lost interest. Now he suddenly found himself part of the world tag-team championship duo.
Don't quibble over the fact it was his first bout. The point was to draw a crowd to the coliseum, which can hold 5,000 people.
In the old days, the star attraction could have snapped his fingers and filled the place with recruiters. About 800 people showed up Saturday night. Compared to the WWE, it was off-off-off Broadway stuff.
The lights were turned off for the Krypt Keeper's spooky introduction. Nobody could figure out how to get them back on for about 15 minutes. When they did, a lady in a $20 ringside seat made it her goal in life to splash some Mountain Dew all over the suit worn by the Krypt Keeper's manager.
A couple of bouts later, a fan got so excited he leapt from his seat, put the bad-guy rassler in a headlock and tried to push him into the ring. It definitely was not in the script. The good-guy rassler grabbed the microphone and pleaded for crowd control.
"Hey," he said, "You let me kick his butt."
After a couple of hours of this frivolity, it was time.
"The main event!" the announcer bellowed.
Out came Wildfire Tommy Rich, a seven-time world champ according the program. At 54, he's kept his blond hair in far better shape than his body. He was joined by Dangerous Doug Gilbert and his menacing black baseball bat.
They stood in the ring as Dupree appeared from behind a makeshift curtain in the corner of the coliseum. In case anyone didn't know his qualifications, video of old touchdown runs ran on a projection screen.
There was also the baseball-like jersey with OKLAHOMA on the front and No. 22 on the back. His shiny red boots had OU stitched on them. The only thing missing was a helmet.
Actually, the only thing missing was this tag team partner, Davey Rich. Dupree sauntered toward the ring, then slowly circled it. He got a chair and threw inside the ropes, then grabbed it and chased his opponents.
It might have just been to build suspense, though I suspect Davey Rich had gotten lost trying to find the coliseum. After about 10 minutes, he came running down the stairs. Gilbert grabbed the microphone and the crowd manipulation began.
"You was a good football player," he told Dupree. "You was a good athlete. But you know what? I was a great athlete and my partner, he's a former world champion!"
Dupree waved it off in seeming disgust.
"If you'd had any sense, you'd have gone to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville!" Gilbert said.
The crowd booed. If there were 800 people there, 300 must have been children. The rest simply reacted that way. They screamed and pointed when the bad guys broke out the old "foreign object" and kept hiding it from the oblivious referee.
Dupree mostly just slammed into people and threw imaginary punches. Based on his opponents' reaction, Dupree was Mike Tyson in his prime. Dupree's main job was to complain that the bad guys were cheating. That kept the ref's attention in his corner while the other guys cheated.
They choked Davey Rich with a small rope. When Dupree tried to come the rescue, the ref would shoo him back to his corner. The crowd was infuriated at the miscarriage of justice. There's nothing like hearing a bunch of 8-year-olds yell, "You Suck! You Suck! You Suck!"
Eventually, the good guy wrestler from the previous bout stormed into the ring to help set matters straight. He and Dupree pounced on the bad guys. The ref disqualified Gilbert and Rich for being such cheats.
With Davey Rich still semi-conscious, the ref handed the championship belts to Dupree. Suddenly if felt like a Friday night in 1981.
A couple of people jumped through the ropes to pose for picture with Dupree. Then the entire coliseum seemed to join in. There were blacks, whites, Indians, young and old, all engulfed in homecoming chant.
"Marcus! Marcus! Marcus!"
Around here, the name doesn't need redemption.