HATTIESBURG, MISS. -- The morning's punishment is complete and now sweat is running off him in rivers. The muscles are huge and glistening, the stomach hard and flat.

The most heralded running back never to play in the NFL is standing by a bent goalpost at a place called Hawkins Field. A friend says he doesn't remember ever seeing him look this way -- so fit, so focused. Somebody asks how long he has been away from football.

"Five years," Marcus Dupree said. A small smile crosses his face.

The field has bumps and brown-green grass, encircled by a track with weeds sprouting through the cinder. There's a rusty grandstand on one side, a maintenance shed for Hattiesburg public schools across the street.

Even by southeastern Mississippi standards, it is a quiet spot. There is no glitter or pretense, and that is quite by design.

Once Marcus Dupree was the most storied schoolboy player ever. His coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer, called him "the most talented back we have ever had and the most talented back I have ever seen." Switzer said this a few weeks after Dupree arrived from Philadelphia, Miss.

A big-name author, Willie Morris, wrote a book about the recruiting frenzy that engulfed him, calling it "The Courting of Marcus Dupree."

That was before it all unraveled, amid confusion, underachievement and a horrible knee injury. Now Dupree is aiming to make what would be one of the most remarkable comebacks ever.

He said, "I was always wondering, 'What if? What if my knee hadn't gotten hurt? What if I got on the right team? What if I got in shape and gave it a go?' I got tired of saying 'what if.'

"I really just want to play. Finally, to play. I don't have anything to lose. I'm going to give it all I've got and see what happens."

This is a story about one man against himself, pushing himself, the proverbial gut check for a can't-miss guy who missed. It's also about growing up.

Marcus Dupree is sitting in the first row of the grandstand, torso rippling through a tight tank top. Rarely is an interview part of his daily routine, but he talked for close to an hour, with candor and clarity, about a newfound commitment and a struggle to find himself and a half-decade of drifting and turbulence: ill-fated business ventures; squandered money; allegations of shady dealings against his former agent; a broken marriage, and even about the sudden jolt that came last month, when he spent eight days in jail.

"Maybe this is something that was meant to happen," he said. "Maybe God just wanted it this way -- to make me a better person. Make me more of a man."

Marcus Dupree is 26. On May 1, he weighed 270 pounds. He is 6-3 and now weighs 218. The body is sculpted. The knee feels great. Doesn't swell. Doesn't hurt. He used to run a 4.3 in the 40 and a 9.5 100. He was timed at 4.5 not long ago and thinks he can go down from there.

Bruce McCarthy, who is Walter Payton's orthopedist, said, "Whoever reconstructed his knee did a wonderful job."

Dupree's mind is fixed on getting the knees, and the rest of him, into the NFL. The interest is mutual. There have been "indirect feelers" from eight teams, according to his agent, Bud Holmes. The Browns are intrigued. So are the Cowboys. The Rams' running backs coach, Dick Coury, coached Dupree with the New Orleans-Portland Breakers in the USFL. Coury has talked to Dupree several times, said Bob Hill.

Hill is Dupree's personal trainer and the former coach of Jackson State. He was the conditioning coach with the Saints until he broke his neck in a car accident in 1985. He understands the skepticism about Dupree's comeback; he had a full dose of doubt himself.

"All I ever heard about him was on the negative side," Hill said. "I always thought he was a spoiled kid, a dumb kid who couldn't talk, write or read. He's totally different. He's a sincere, caring person. A humble person."

Hill is a renowned taskmaster whose slogan is, "I'll drive you until you cry." He said Dupree is an alert, totally committed soldier.

"If he wasn't, I wouldn't waste a minute on him," Hill said.

Dupree's troubling spiral began in his sophomore year at Oklahoma, where he had a very public feud with Switzer, who assailed his work habits and questioned the seriousness of several of his injuries. He enrolled at Southern Mississippi, bolted again, and wound up signing a five-year, $6 million deal with the Breakers.

On Feb. 24, 1985, he ripped up the knee against the Arizona Wranglers. At age 20, he was thought to be finished.

Dupree grew up quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks, in a humble home in a neighborhood pocked by poverty. When the money arrived, so did the predictable number of sharks.

Charles "Tree" McAfee, a close friend of Dupree's from high school who later played linebacker at Mississippi, said, "Everything came so quick. There was instant limelight. He was an instant millionaire. So many people were pulling at him, demanding his time, hanging around him. Coming from a small town like Philadelphia, Mississippi, that's something that's very difficult to handle."

Philadelphia, population 6,000, is a small factory town in the east-central part of the state. It has a sprawling Choctaw Indian Reservation and a chilling legacy in civil rights history, being the site of the 1964 murders of three young activists -- James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Marcus was born a month before the slayings, and once he exploded into the national spotlight, hometown expectations exploded as well, said James Coleman, Dupree's roommate and another old friend. He remembers the first time Dupree touched the ball in a high school game as a freshman: "He got the ball two yards deep in the end zone and he took it 102 yards for a touchdown."

In Dupree's senior year, he handled eight kickoffs. Seven went for touchdowns. He left for Oklahoma with 87 touchdowns and the tag as the next Herschel Walker, and when he averaged 7.0 yards per carry and had a Fiesta Bowl record 239 yards (in 17 carries) as a freshman, the legend only grew.

When things didn't go according to plan, Coleman said the disappointment was extreme.

"If he doesn't perform the way people expect, they make him out to be the worst person in the world," he said. Coleman said Dupree is very much misunderstood. He talks of a friend who is kind and down-to-earth, who never changed and was his biggest comfort when Coleman was undergoing a trying medical discharge from the army.

"If it weren't for him, there's no telling what would've happened to me," Coleman said.

To hear Holmes and Hill, Dupree's biggest problem may have been a surplus of gifts.

"I don't think he's ever really been in shape his whole life until now," Hill said. "In high school, it was just take the ball, run for a touchdown; take the ball, run for a touchdown."

Holmes, who also represents Payton, is hardly a coddling agent. He said Dupree "has more natural ability in one leg than Walter Payton has in his whole body. The difference is that Walter understood discipline.

"Football, rather than a blessing, was a curse for Marcus. A curse, because he got things he didn't have to work for. He was very, very undisciplined. And it's hard to argue with. His thinking was, 'If I'm in such bad shape, how come I run for seven touchdowns?' "

Dupree doesn't dispute the point. "I wished I worked out like this at the beginning, back in college," he said.

Holmes remembers going to a Saints game with Dupree a few years ago. Dupree wasn't terribly impressed with the quality of running back he saw. He wanted to come back right away. He weighed about 250.

"I told him, 'Get the fat off your butt, get down to 220 and show me you're serious, and then come back and talk to me,'" Holmes said. Dupree "fiddled around" for a few years, Holmes said, until this spring.

Holmes set up a meeting between Dupree and longtime Browns cornerback Hanford Dixon. This was in April. They worked out together.

"He ran four or five miles and I couldn't even run an 880," Dupree said, the disgust still in his voice.

Soon after, Holmes hooked Dupree up with Payton. Like Dixon, Payton goaded Dupree, counseled him, told him he could make the NFL if only he would be willing to pay the price.

"I think personal pride took over," Holmes said.

The workouts commenced -- maniacally. He started running. He did sprints. He began lifting weights as never before, five days a week, all summer long.

Dupree ate baked fish and chicken and salads. He was down to 250 by late May, in the 230s by June. He started working with Hill a month ago.

"There isn't any doubt about it -- he's in the best shape of his life," Tree McAfee said.

Dupree said the greatest motivation of all was his two sons, Marquez, 7, and Landon, 5. They live with his estranged wife, Katrine. He sees them infrequently.

Said Dupree: "My two sons sit back home watching videotape of me playing at Oklahoma and get so excited: 'Oh, look at Daddy. That's our daddy.' And that's just from a tape. I'd like to give them a chance to get excited at a real game. I'd like to be an inspiration to them."

Perhaps one more notch of desire was cranked out of him some three weeks ago. Embroiled in a bitter divorce, Dupree had a property dispute with his wife. He was also broke and three months behind on $1,200-per-month child support payments. Friends insist Dupree is a devoted father who would routinely hand his wife large checks for the kids -- when he had the money.

The dispute went to court. Dupree went to jail.

His mother, Cella Connors, borrowed the $3,600 and was ready to get him out right away. Holmes intervened. He and Hill thought it might shake up Dupree to sit in a cell for a bit.

"We called it our game plan," Hill said with a smile. "Let him see what the real world is like, if you don't have your stuff together. I think it really solidified his commitment."

Said Dupree: "It just motivated me to say, 'Hey, this is not where I want to be with my life.' "

It's hard to say when Dupree might be ready to play. As much as Hill is pushing him, he hasn't been smashed into by 240-pound linebackers in a long time.

"The main thing is that, when we turn him loose, he'll be ready to go," said Hill, who used to coach Chuck Muncie and George Rogers. He thinks Dupree could be better than either. You sense he thinks Dupree could be a lot better.

Holmes knows that perceptions die hard. He said he'll sign any liability waiver a club may want about the knee. He is not looking for any record-setting contract.

"I've told Marcus, they're already thinking you can't do it from the beginning," Holmes said. "The odds are 99 percent against you. You have to get there and be ready, because they're ain't going to be too many more trains coming back this way."

Said Hill, "The best is yet to come -- I really believe that. I think if he gets through this year, there's no telling what he can do."

Dupree said he feels better about himself than he ever has. He doesn't dwell on what's done. He has put in his work. The sweat has felt good.

He said he's humble and hungry. "I just want to get on a team and do the best I can to contribute," he said. "If I do that, the rest will fall into place."

He talks about being out on the field and hearing 60,000 people cheering, feeling the thrill of running somebody over, running right by somebody else, running right into the end zone.

It used to happen all the time. His dream is simple: Do it again. If it comes true, he plans on being very grateful.

"A lot of people don't get second chances," Marcus Dupree said.