ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- It almost ended in disaster, Marcus Dupree's first NFL carry. Even his two solid knees, one more than he had when he last played football, didn't stop the ball from popping loose.

As Dupree hit the line, the line hit back. One yard forward, and a fumble. This wasn't the debut he planned six months ago in Mississippi, where Dupree's improbable comeback began with an extra 50 pounds hitched to his frame and only his conscience and a few friends watching.

But Dupree was given a reprieve. The play was whistled dead before he lost the ball. So the Los Angeles Rams gave it to Dupree three more times Sunday, and he didn't disappoint. The last two minutes of the Rams' 31-7 loss to the New York Giants were his.

Seven yards up the middle. 10 yards up the middle and a first down. Four yards off left tackle.

The moves came by instinct, he said later, as if they never left him. Five years had passed since Dupree's last game, but he learned quickly that not much has changed.

"I was relaxed, comfortable," Dupree said. "I've got big guys in front of me. All I have to do is run -- that's the easy part."

Dupree has always made it look easy; to a point, even this comeback. After a half-decade of hardship -- life without football, a failed marriage and a constant loss of money and gain of weight -- he has somehow returned, at 26, in good condition, ready to play.

The Rams were convinced enough to sign Dupree to a two-year contract on Oct. 3. He was activated Nov. 4 and Sunday put on a uniform -- No. 34, in honor of one his motivators, Walter Payton -- as their third-string tailback.

"It's just like riding a bike," said Dupree, a second-team all-American as a freshman at Oklahoma in 1982, the year he rushed for 239 yards in the Fiesta Bowl. You "just get out there and play. Get back in there and after the first lick, you're fine."

His condition in April, mind you, wasn't so good. He weighed 270 pounds and hadn't done much of anything since 1985, when, in the first game of that season with the USFL's Portland Breakers, Dupree tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

He had lived off the remains of his contract and a $450,000 insurance payment from Lloyd's of London, without holding a job during his layoff. It wasn't until Payton started pushing him this spring that Dupree got in shape.

Then, just before his agent could sell the notion that he was ready for the NFL, Dupree spent seven nights in a Mississippi jail in August for contempt of court for failing to make child support payments.

"Marcus went through extremely frustrating times in his life when he did get his hands on a little money," said Bud Holmes, Dupree's agent. "He went from one extreme to another in a very short time."

Holmes credits Bruce McCarthy, the orthopedic surgeon who monitored Dupree's rehabilitation, along with Payton, for helping Dupree rejuvenate himself.

"McCarthy did a tremendous job of getting his head on straight," Holmes said. "A lot of times you can fix a person's leg, but you can't fix their head."

Head and body repaired, Dupree now cuts an imposing presence at 6 feet 3, some 220 pounds. But no one is running scared yet. Before Sunday, Dupree had played in only 17 college games for Oklahoma and 16 in the pros with the Breakers.

In his stint against the Giants, Dupree rushed for 22 yards on four carries, whetting the appetite of disappointed Rams fans looking for someone for whom to cheer.

Afterward, when told by a reporter that it looked as if he hadn't missed a beat, Dupree was taken aback. "Really?," he said. "Everybody keeps saying that.

"It was what I expected, a feeling that I can't really express," Dupree said of his emotions coming out of the tunnel onto the field at Anaheim Stadium. "It just felt good to dress out, just to try to go out there and warm up."

His teammates are still trying. At 3-6, even with an extra NFC wild-card berth available for the first time, the season is fading away quickly for the Rams, tabbed by several experts as Super Bowl contenders.

And with two games left against unbeaten San Francisco, Los Angeles is in desperate need of something, or someone, positive to talk about. Dupree might be just that.

"It was good to see Marcus get in there and get after it," said Rams quarterback Jim Everett, whose 17-for-36, three-interception struggle against the Giants kept him in the Los Angeles locker room with reporters even longer than Dupree.

"I thought he ran the ball well," said Everett. "You never can judge a guy from practice. To see him get in there and run that hard was good. I'd like to see him make a big comeback."

Because of the injury, Dupree's ability to survive the pounding of the NFL no doubt will be questioned repeatedly. Already, Coach John Robinson has said Dupree needs to add experience before he can play regularly.

"Basically, not for me, but {I answered questions} for everybody else watching me," Dupree said of his showing against New York. "You've got people across the country who know that Marcus Dupree can still take a lick."

How many licks per game can Dupree take? Robinson, wary of rushing Dupree into a full-time role, is in no hurry to find out.

"I'm not tempted at all," Robinson said of increasing Dupree's workload. "I don't think he is anywhere near ready to do that. . . . I just don't want to put him in a role that he's not ready for just yet."

Until Dupree masters several details of the Rams' offense, such as pass blocking, his playing time likely won't be increased, Robinson said.

"We'll try to expand it some," Robinson said. "We'll do it a little bit. One of these games, we'll get way ahead and play him the whole second half."

Having waited five years, Dupree seems to have an inordinate amount of patience. He said as much after the game, knowing that it might be weeks before he breaks into the Rams' current rotation of running backs.

"I plan to be here for a while," said Dupree.