The Greatest Football Player That Never Was
Marcus Dupree was pegged to win three Heismans before he got chewed up in the college system. How did the high-school sensation make peace with life after football? Buzz Bissinger reports.
Marcus Dupree watched the Super Bowl last Sunday in the place where he grew up, the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. If there was anyone in the history of football who I thought would be glued to the television, playing the athlete's lament of could-have-should-have, it would have been him.
Because it should have been him. But it wasn't. Because of the college meat grinder that mangles so many players. Because of too much attention for a simple homespun kid whose world revolved around his mother and grandmother and younger brother Reggie, born with cerebral palsy. Because of the pressure of becoming, at 17, the black and white hope who would finally heal the gaping racism of a town in which three young civil-rights workers had been murdered in 1964. Because of recruiters for the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas who moved into a motel in Philadelphia for weeks to gain any extra edge. Because of Oklahoma Coach Barry Switzer, who after willfully destroying the very essence of Marcus Dupree, now leans back in his oversize chair in his tricked-out study and admits with a shit-eating little smirk that his greatest regret in coaching was the handling of Marcus Dupree. Which nearly 30 years later is not only absolutely meaningless but amoral.
I grew up in the era of Marcus Dupree in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Of all the players I have ever watched in 56 years, no one, no one, has made more of an impression. He was the best high-school football player ever. He was 6-3 and 230 pounds. He could run the 100-yard dash in 9.5 seconds. He set the high-school record for touchdowns with 87 when he played for Philadelphia High. He gained 7,355 yards.
I had forgotten about Marcus Dupree. Until roughly a month ago, when I watched a brilliant documentary on ESPN that was conceived, written, and directed by Jonathan Hock. The title was The Best That Never Was, the moniker forever a noose around Dupree's neck. It all returned as I watched—the speed and power and poetry of the way he ran; the willful puncturing of that by Barry Switzer in the early 1980s; the shift, like so many thousands of athletes coming out of high school, from folk hero to the forgotten. Those very same feelings hit me as I watched the Super Bowl. I truly thought that at some point in Marcus Dupree's 46-year-old life, it would have been him with the MVP trophy and the car and the trip to Disneyland.
He loved playing football. Thanks to remarkable footage Hock discovered from Dupree's high school days, you could see it in the abandon and freedom.
Until he went to Oklahoma in 1982.
Almost immediately, Switzer said that Dupree was out of shape, lazy, lacking in intensity. The transition from small-town Mississippi to big-time college football, with the nation watching, was difficult enough. "I was overwhelmed," he recently told me. But it was never a fair fight, Switzer a grown man paid to deal with young athletes and Dupree a teenager who, until a recruiting trip the year before, had never been on an airplane. He needed encouragement to overcome his alienation and moodiness, not vicious swipes.
But Switzer, one of college football's finest hacksaw butchers, still knew a good cut of meat. He knew Dupree was the best running back on the team even if he was a lowly freshman. He knew he had to finally start him. Dupree finished the season with 1,144 yards. In the Fiesta Bowl against Arizona State, he gained 239 yards on 17 carries despite playing roughly half the game because of a hamstring that had never properly healed after he'd torn it in high school. Switzer congratulated the effort by publicly criticizing Dupree for being out of shape because he was caught twice from behind. He said the kid should have gained 400 yards.
He has even made his peace with Barry Switzer, who in another worthless piece of performance art, once turned to Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith when he coached there and told him, "You're not the best No. 22 I ever saw."
Before Dupree's sophomore year, Sports Illustrated said he had the possibility of winning the Heisman Trophy the next three seasons. But the relationship between Switzer and Dupree had soured into outright hate. Midway through his sophomore season, Dupree quit the team and never returned to Norman. He went on to play in the old United States Football League. He signed a $6 million contract, almost none of which he actually saw. But in his second season he suffered a horrifying knee injury that left him in a cast for five months.
He went back to Philadelphia. He sat by himself in a darkened room and refused to see anyone. He looked like an old man and weighed almost 300 pounds. Reluctantly he was coaxed into going to a New Orleans Saints game. He got a sideline pass. He looked up in wonderment and heard the ceaseless noise of frenzy. He remembered.
In a makeshift gym in his grandmother's house, using ancient equipment, he worked himself back into shape. His work ethic, contrary to Switzer's endless derision, reflected a savage intensity. Miraculously, after a five-and-a-half year absence, he made the Los Angeles Rams. He played two seasons and he only scored one touchdown. But it proved that nobody could ever call him a quitter—except a coach who, regardless of the mea culpas he gave in the documentary, obviously didn't like him and didn't want him, a piece of meat in college football that could always be replaced by another one fresh and dangling on the hook.
Marcus Dupree has worked as a truck driver. Most recently he was the foreman of a crew in Mississippi that helped to clean up the BP oil spill. It was not the life he ever envisioned, the beauty of his running in high school so tinged by the bittersweet.
Most athletes would be bitter and angry until the end of their days. But Dupree has never done that. He is proud that he made it to the National Football League. He has even made his peace with Barry Switzer, who in another worthless piece of performance art, once turned to Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith when he coached there and told him, "You're not the best No. 22 I ever saw."
When Marcus Dupree is given a compliment, the first thing he does is laugh from the heart. Then he offers thanks. "You don't know in life what you're going to be," he said. "There's life after football. I just thank God I grew up."
He barely watched last Sunday's Super Bowl, simply because he had other priorities. It was his grandson's 7th birthday and there was a party at the new Depot bowling alley in Philadelphia. He did catch the last five minutes of the game, and he was impressed by the poise of Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But there was no jealousy. There was no regret. With 15 wired-up kids on his hands, he had a lot more to worry about.
Which is the truest definition of greatness anyway.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August . He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.