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 Posted: Thu Jun 18th, 2015 04:14 pm
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bpickering



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AMPA — Virgil Runnels Jr’s funeral Wednesday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church was a fitting representation of his career portraying professional wrestler Dusty Rhodes.

Those in attendance spanned the more than four decades he spent in the industry, from retired wrestler Gerald Brisco, who performed alongside Runnels in the 1970s, to Colby Lopez, who portrays current World Wrestling Entertainment champion Seth Rollins and was trained by Runnels at the WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando.

Then there was Tampa as the host of the celebration of his life.

For many who knew him, the city was the perfect setting.

Runnels’ wrestling persona of “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes was loved around the world but was born and crafted in Tampa. The city’s residents identified with his blue-collar roots and unabashedly supported his message that the American Dream could be attained with hard work.

Runnels most recently split his time between residences in Marietta, Georgia, and Orlando and was born in Austin, Texas.

But Runnels considered Tampa to be home, said his longtime friend and fellow WWE Hall of Famer Jim Ross.

“He had Texas roots and pride and was just as proud to say he was from Tampa,” Ross said.

Runnels’ wife, Michelle Runnels, also has roots in Tampa and the family considers Monsignor Lawrence Higgins of St. Lawrence Catholic Church to be a good friend and spiritual advisor, Ross said.

Runnels died June 11 at the age of 69 due to complications from a fall.

The funeral was a private affair at the request of the family, and fans and media were not allowed inside the church.

On television, the larger-than-life scripted grapplers are never at a loss for words. But on Wednesday, the dozens who attended the funeral were somber and silent when met with the real-life death of their beloved friend.

“We are truly grateful for the outpouring of love and support from Dusty’s colleagues and fans around the world,” said the Runnels family in a prepared statement distributed to the press through the WWE. “Our family appreciates that you continue to respect our privacy at this difficult time.”

Among the well-known members of the wrestling community in attendance were Pat “Patterson” Clermont, Dory Funk, Jr. and Ata Johnson - the daughter of “High Chief” Peter Maivia and mother of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

Current stars included Bryan Danielson and Mark Henry.

Two buses filled with future stars who had been learning under Runnels at the WWE Performance Center arrived an hour before the funeral’s 4:30 p.m. start.

Runnels was primarily known to fans as an in-ring performer who won dozens of championships around the world, said Runnels’ biographer, Howard Brody. But while still active, Runnels also became a wrestling “booker,” the title given to the person who scripts the match outcomes and storylines, Brody said.

He later became a broadcaster and finally a trainer at the WWE Performance Center.

“I’m not sure if any other wrestler has had such a diverse impact over such a long period of time,” Brody said.

Still, Runnels first achieved celebrity status in the 1970s with the Championship Wrestling From Florida promotion. He performed in weekly Tuesday night shows at Tampa’s Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory when the city was the southern epicenter of professional wrestling.

“It’s where he became the star we now all know,” said Brody. “Really, it’s where the American Dream was born.”

It was May 14, 1974 at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, to be exact.

Runnels – who had the been known as the bad guy grappler “Dirty” Dusty Rhodes since his first match in Texas in 1968 - was booked on that night’s wrestling card in a tag team match. His partner was fellow evildoer Pak Song; their opponents were the beloved Mike and Eddie Graham.

Midway through the scripted match, Song accidentally knocked Dusty Rhodes from the ring. He thought it was done purposely and attacked Song. The fans sided with Dusty Rhodes and a good guy was born.

“He had been getting cheers for weeks at that point,” Brody said. “The fans loved him despite him being a bad guy. So it was time to turn him.”

In the television interviews that followed that match, Runnels played up a blue-collar persona and said he was living the “American Dream” through his success in the professional wrestling business.

That self-description caught on with the Tampa fans. They chanted “American Dream’’ whenever he performed and it became the nickname that adorned his wrestling stage name.

When Runnels’ career took him out of Tampa in the 1980s and around the world, the name stuck.

Historians have often associated the wrestler’s popularity in Tampa with the fact the city had no professional sports franchises at that time so professional wrestling, even though it was scripted, was the only mainstream athletic competition offered.

“When Tampa needed a sports hero, Dusty fit the bill,” said friend Ross.

But there were dozens of others who fought scripted battles in Tampa for the Championship Wrestling From Florida promotion.

What catapulted Runnels to the position of top star, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center, was that the Dusty Rhodes character connected with the Tampa demographic of the time.

He was billed as the son of a plumber who spent his childhood digging for employment.

“Tampa was not brimming with tall office towers that offered white-collar jobs back then,” said Powell. “It had mostly manufacturing jobs. It was a city with a lot of workers who punched time clocks. I think fans looked at him as symbol of someone who came up and made something of themselves.”

Further connecting Rhodes to the Tampa fans, said biographer Brody, was that like them he was imperfect as compared to other grapplers whose physiques and faces appeared to be chiseled out of granite.

Dusty Rhodes was more comfortable in jeans and a cowboy hat than a suit. And he had a pot belly and a lisp.

“They lived vicariously through him because they saw themselves in him,” Brody said. “But he was also a great athlete. Dusty could wrestle for an hour. Not many people can do that.”

Runnels was not portraying a character, said friend Ross. There was little difference between who he was and his alter ego.

Runnels’ father was actually a plumber. And Runnels did indeed come from humble roots and earned success largely through his tireless work ethic.

“He was really living the American Dream,” said Bruce Mitchell, a wrestling historian and columnist with Pro Wrestling Torch newsletter. “He very much believed in his character and the message it portrayed. While it was a performance, it was real to him and came across that way to the fans in a city that associated with who he was.”

Even the way Dusty Rhodes spoke was how Runnels spoke - in a charismatic manner that was one part Southern preacher and one part Muhammad Ali.

“It was not an act,’’ Mitchell said. “He was very unique and that personality was perfect for wrestling.”

Jody Simon - the son of late-wrestler Lawrence Simon who portrayed the evil Russian Boris Malenko in Tampa from the 1950s through 1970s - said when he was a kid and would run into Runnels in the locker room, small talk would turn into a kind-hearted lecture.

“He always made sure I was studying and working hard and listening to my parents,” Simon said. “He earnestly cared that all the kids in Tampa - not just me - grew up right.”

Simon is leading the charge to raise $250,000 for a memorial wall in honor of all the professional wrestlers who once performed in Tampa. The wall would be in the future Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center that will be built inside the armory building that hosted the matches.

“The outpouring of sadness from Tampa to the news of Dusty’s death is a sad reminder of how much wrestling once meant to Tampa,” Simon said.

“Dusty was lucky to have Tampa,” Ross said. “And Tampa was even luckier to have Dusty.”

Runnels is survived by his wife, Michelle Rubio Runnels; children Dustin, Kristin Ditto, Teil Gergel, and Cody; brother, Larry, sister, Connie Jones; and five grandchildren.



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