“I've wined and dined with kings and queens, and I've slept in alleys and ate pork and beans.” — “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes
As Jerry Brisco pulled into the parking lot of what was once known as the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory — at one time one of the Southeast's premier wrestling venues — he couldn't help but smile.
There for an event to help raise money to create a memorial at the storied Tampa building that for decades hosted Championship Wrestling from Florida, Brisco thought about the many Tuesday nights when the area's biggest celebrity sold out the arena with regularity.
Just like in the old days, the event was a sellout. But this time, it would be without Dusty Rhodes, the legend who came in with a splash during the early '70s and rode out on the end of a lightning bolt earlier that day.
“What a tribute to the Dream,” said Brisco. “He was advertised to be here, and he sold out his last event. When I drove up, I saw the 'sold out' sign, and said to myself, 'Dream, you did it again.'”
Virgil Riley Runnels Jr., better known to millions of fans worldwide as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, passed away last Thursday at the age of 69.
And a little bit of the business died with him.
“I'll love him and miss him forever,” said Brisco, who made sure to take a selfie with Dusty just days earlier in what would be their final meeting. It's now a photograph that holds even greater meaning for Brisco.
“We didn't talk business, we just talked family and friendship,” he said. “We've known each other for nearly 50 years. Now that I look back on it, those were the greatest two hours I ever had.”
Reports say that Rhodes died from complications suffered after a fall Wednesday morning at his residence. His family was by his side when it was time for The Dream, one last time, to go home.
“He was our hero and the greatest father in the world,” said eldest son and WWE performer Dustin Runnels. “He is the reason why I am who I am today. He taught me so many lessons in life. He was my mentor, my hero and a dad that I strive to be like.”
His passing left not only the wrestling community — but millions of fans around the world who knew and loved The Dream — in shock and mourning.
Dusty Rhodes was much more than a wrestling icon. He was a household name that had long transcended the wrestling business. He was, simply put, a force of nature.
Nobody loved his job more than Dusty. “He doesn't want the magic to end,” son Cody once said. “He loves it so much.”
The Texas native really was “the son of a plumber,” a legitimate hero to the blue-collar crowd who paid their hard-earned money each week to see Dusty do battle with the forces of evil, back in the days when wrestling was clearly split between good and bad, with no shades of grey.
An everyman with a less-than-stellar physique but armed with a surplus of charisma, he didn't look like the typical athlete, but embraced the “working class man” persona with a lisp-tinged spiel that could talk fans into the building while promising to lay the smack down and “take care of bidness.”
“My belly's just a little big, my hiney's just a little big,” he said during his famous “Hard Times” promo in 1985. “But brother, I am bad and they know I'm bad.”
Didn't matter that Dusty didn't have a chiseled physique or a fancy ring entrance. He knew what his audience wanted. And they wanted a taste of that very dream he symbolized.
Today's wrestling “superstars,” as they are commonly referred to, owe a lot to Dusty. Many, such as WWE world champion Seth Rollins, expressed their gratitude last week.
“I was ever so fortunate to be a friend to this man, to learn from him as a performer and as a human being.”
“Shocked. Honored to have performed in front of him,” tweeted Rusev.
“The Dream will live forever in my heart. Thank you for the wisdom and for always making me smile. The stratosphere is reserved for you,” echoed Samoa Joe.
Dusty Rhodes paved the road for them and hundreds of others who watched him over the years, trained with him, or merely studied tapes.
The list goes on and on, but there really wasn't anyone worth his or her salt who hadn't learned from The Dream.
Even a young Ric Flair emulated Rhodes.
“All I wanted to be is Rambling Ricky Rhodes,” said the future 16-time world champion. “He was the guy I idolized.”
“You can make it on your own,” Rhodes encouraged Flair, whose early career preference was eventually overturned by booker George Scott, who thought the flamboyant Minnesotan might be better suited for a robe and “Nature Boy” moniker.
“He mentored me and taught me how to be a star,” said Flair. “Dusty used to say, 'If you are going to pass by ... why not in a Cadillac?'”
Dusty Rhodes was one of those rarest of performers who had that intangible quality that can't be taught and can't be replicated. Few ever came close to matching his ability to speak into a microphone and entertain an audience.
“If Dusty came along today, he'd be as big a star now as he was back then,” said Flair. “He knew how to sell, he had a comeback, he had fire in his interviews. He could walk out in his robe right now, or he could walk out in his jeans and cowboy boots. He was way ahead of his time.”
It'll take a while before the shock and sadness begin to subside. It's almost as if folks expected Dusty Rhodes to live forever. Many have lost a piece of their childhood
It's a more pleasant thought, however, to imagine The Dream exiting as he had arrived — on the end of that lightning bolt, on a silver-studded saddle, riding off into the stratosphere.
After all, that's what The Dream was really all about. He was the ultimate good guy, like his hero, the late John Wayne, whom he quoted in his masterful “Hard Times” promo as he bucked the odds and challenged the bad guys to a showdown.
“There were two bad people ... One was John Wayne, and he's dead, brother, and the other's right here.”
But even heroes are mortal. Now, sadly for his legion of fans and friends and the many lives he touched, those “Hard Times” are now.
No amount of words could ever adequately describe what Dusty Rhodes meant to the wrestling business. Wrestler, performer, entertainer, booker, promoter, power broker, innovator, teacher, trainer, friend. He was all of them, and he left lasting impressions and memories that will become part of wrestling lore for decades to come.
“There will never be another Dusty Rhodes,” said Flair. “He was a true original.”
“The Dream taught me so much in this life and I will be forever grateful for his friendship and his great big heart. He taught me that family is more than the blood in our veins but the people that grow in our hearts,” said longtime friend Janie Engle.
Indeed, as Gordon Solie might say, Dusty Rhodes was many things to many people.
But to his children, who loved him unconditionally, he was everything they had ever dreamed of.
“He had one thing that he wanted to be, and that was he wanted to be forever young. Now he is. Now he is dancing with angels in heaven,” said son Dustin.
How prophetic that just one week before his sudden and untimely passing, Dusty Rhodes posted a message to his four children on Facebook. To them, no doubt, it will be his greatest promo ever.
“Sometimes you must think ... what thing you have to be most proud of? It's your kids ... They are truly God's gift to you. Put nothing above them, take care, don't leave them hanging. My kids are and always will be my life. We are blessed.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.