“The American Dream” is a fairly grandiose tag to hang on one man, but Dusty Rhodes, the 275-pound star of many a pro wrestling show at the old West Palm Beach Auditorium, enjoyed the challenge.
Maybe you think pro wrestling is a joke. OK, Dusty would make you laugh strutting around the ring and sporting his curly mop of dyed-blond hair.
Maybe you were all-in on the blood and sweat and urgency of Texas death-match drama. Dusty delivered that, too, taking chairs over the head and nosedives through the ropes, but always climbing back up to keep the screaming crowds on his side.
Dusty, whose real name was Virgil Runnels, died Thursday at 69. One report said it was kidney failure. Could have been anything, really, considering the destruction that comes over a long career performing in dingy small-town arenas and Madison Square Garden and eventually back to the hinterlands again.
I dug Dusty, and so did all my middle-school buddies, getting dropped off at the West Palm Auditorium by parents who wondered exactly what was wrong with us. It was silly, sure, but it was fun, and never have I heard Dusty’s name spoken in all these years without a smile springing out from way back in the 1970’s.
Larry Mlynczak, my first sports editor at the Palm Beach Post back in the late ’70s, sent an e-mail at the news of Rhodes’ passing to remind me of how people packed that crazy teepee-shaped building to see Dusty. National Wrestling Alliance cards on Monday nights easily outdrew minor-league baseball and most other events around here, and because the same wrestling stars appeared each Saturday on television from Tampa, it actually gave a feel of something big coming to town.
These were the same people who fought at the Miami Beach Convention Center and in other major venues around the state. These were the same guys, too, who later would merge with the WWE wrestling universe and go nationwide.
We even ran a few paragraphs of the results in the paper, not because the competition was real, but because the interest was. Once Mlynczak dropped in to interview Dusty, just to see what would happen.
“Is wrestling fake?” Larry asked in a dressing-room interview, and Dusty Rhodes asked right back, “When I broke my ankle tumbling out of the ring, was that fake?”
Before long the conversation turned, as it always did around TV microphones, to Dusty’s rough upbringing in Texas. It was a story told by the son of a plumber who wanted to be so much more.
“I was a grave digger in West Texas when I was a teenager,” Dusty said. “I even put some in the ground. I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know their names.
“I knew then that I wanted to be different. I wanted to have a name.”
That’s when Virgil started thinking about becoming Dusty. That’s when he started dreaming that American Dream.