Emerging from the mist with nothing but physical tools handed him at birth and vague memories of a glorious past, Marcus Dupree showed up at Rams Park Monday, five years after he last played football.
No lightning streaked through the sky, and Robert Redford was nowhere to be seen, but it was hard for anyone who witnessed Dupree go impressively through his light tryout not to get swept up in the storybook possibilities of this improbable comeback attempt.
"It'd be like 'The Natural,' wouldn't it?" Coach John Robinson said with a wink.
Robinson was also quick to point out that Dupree, who suffered what everybody agreed at the time was a career-ending knee injury while playing for the United States Football League's Portland Breakers in 1985 after a brief but storied college career at Oklahoma, still has a lot to prove before any NFL team will take a shot at him.
The Rams, who have not exactly been dazzled by their runningbacks, Sunday gave Dupree a physical, which he appears to have passed. They worked him out Monday and were giving his reconstructed knee a more complex exam later in the day.
Robinson, suggesting that signing Dupree was a longshot at best, was distinctly unwilling to make any comments about Dupree until he has all the facts, no matter how fit or strong Dupree looked.
But Dupree, who according to his agent has only recently triumphed over depression, frustration and weight-gain caused by losing his livelihood for five years, could only smile after his workout. He appeared fit, did the light balance and agility drills without apparent difficulty and generally looked like someone born to run over linebackers.
"It's been five years since I stepped on a football field," Dupree said.
He is 26, and far removed from the heady days when he was an Oklahoma freshman and everybody's choice to be the next Jim Brown; or when he jumped to the USFL in the middle of his sophomore season in 1984 and seemed to be set financially for life; or when he blew out his knee in the first game of the '85 USFL season and returned home to Philadelphia, Miss., another ex-football player who used to be living a dream.
After negotiating an insurance settlement for about $450,000 with the soon-to-be-defunct Breakers--the team took out a policy on Dupree's long-term contract and had to settle with him when it went broke--the no-longer set-for-life Dupree said he never thought he would play football again and ballooned to 270 pounds.
But Ram quarterback coach Dick Coury, who was the Breakers' head coach, kept in touch, and Dupree hooked up with Bud Holmes, who was Walter Payton's agent. Payton worked out with Dupree and encouraged him to make one last effort.
"Kept seeing those Super Bowls go by, and I want to play in a Super Bowl," Dupree said. "Plus, I've got two little boys that get excited when they watch those Oklahoma videotapes. So I want them to see their dad play.
"I didn't want to get old and say, 'What if I could've played in the NFL?' As a kid growing up, you always want to do that, play in the NFL, and I didn't want to miss that chance. I just made up my mind, no matter what got in my mind, I was going to be here."
He said he began training at the start of this year, a 270-pound former running back no team would even think of signing. But by April, Dupree said, after training on his own and with Payton, he was down to 225. Monday, he said he weighed 219.
Coury kept calling, and last week he and Dupree decided it was time. The Rams took a flier on him in the 12th round of the 1986 draft, but he clearly was not ready then.
Dupree, who has also had feelers from the Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints, says he owed it to Coury to come to the Rams first.
"I was determined to stick with Coach Coury," Dupree said. "He stuck with me, so I gave him the first shot."
The Rams brought him in under no pretense, saying they just wanted to take a look at him, see if he was healthy and ready to play. But despite Robinson's uncertainty, the Rams surely know what kind of potential Dupree comes with, should he prove durable.
"It's worth the gamble," said Coury, who also said he was pleased with the way Dupree looked in the workout. "If the guy's healthy enough to play again, he's like a No. 1 draft pick, no question.
"It's a gamble anytime a guy has had an injury and has been out of football as long as he has, but he's a young guy, 25 or whatever. And from a football standpoint, he's only played two years."
Dupree says he would even accept an assignment to the Rams' developmental squad, just to get a chance to play football again. Back home, Dupree never found a job, instead playing some semipro baseball.