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Pope at home while healing from injury

[6/28/04]UTICA In a town the size of Utica, someone O’Lester Pope’s size is mighty easy to pick out.

The hulking 6-foot, 5-inch, 330-pounder has come home for rehabilitation after surgery on his upper arm. He will be in Utica until, or if, he returns to the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League.

It is the latest stop that has taken the offensive lineman from Utica High to Southern Miss, across Europe to the far reaches of Western Canada. In between was a stop in Miami his only NFL experience.

Not bad for someone who only started playing football because of one of the school’s assistant coaches.

Living on the outskirts of town, Pope had trouble getting rides home from practice at night. With his size, though, coach Michael Fields now the head coach at Hinds AHS logged hundreds of miles driving Pope back and forth to his house.

“My mom didn’t want me there because I didn’t have a ride home,” Pope said. “On days that I didn’t have a ride, coach Fields would take me home. Mom agreed then to let me play.”

Pope, the biggest member of his family, found his niche at the old Utica High and parlayed his career into a scholarship to Southern Miss. A short-lived basketball career at Utica High ended after his sophomore season.

“Basketball wasn’t for me,” Pope said with a chuckle.

Utica High closed after his senior class, something Pope looks back on with both sorrow and joy.

“You think about it, I have no high school to come back to,” Pope said. “People would always ask how my high school was doing, and I had to tell them it’s closed. You lose some of your roots that way.

“… On the other hand, I’m glad that I was in the school’s final class.”

A four-year career at USM led Pope to the Miami Dolphins for a year and a half before a stint in NFL Europe, then to the CFL.

“I got to travel and see a lot of different places,” Pope said. “And I played against a lot of great athletes.”

Last season, Pope tore a muscle in his tricep, ending his season prematurely. He said rehab is going well and there is a chance that he will return to Canada this season.

For now, he spends time with family in Utica and helping Fields with a Hinds AHS team that is poised for a run at a Class 2A state championship.

His future is just as cloudy. He said he wants to get into coaching, but still also has a desire to play football.

For now, the 28-year-old will continue to stay in Utica where he is not “O’Lester, the football star,” but just plain O’Lester.

“This is home and this is where my family is,” Pope said. “I’ve been all over the world, but home is definitely where the heart is. This is where I’d want to be when it is all said and done.”