Dupree's ESPN story generating new interest in former star
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 10:30 AM
Marcus Dupree says an ESPN documentary about his rise and fall as the mostly highly recruited high school football player in the nation in 1981 has a silver lining.
Marcus Dupree, right, with his best friend Alvin Kidd at Philadelphia High School in 1981. (Photo by Keith Warren/The Neshoba Democrat)
"I have gotten calls from all over the country," said Dupree, the former Philadelphia High School standout. "It has opened the eyes of a lot of parents and coaches about what can go on when a high school athlete is being recruited."
Dupree, 46, and living in Ocean Springs, says there has been some Hollywood interest in telling his life story that was the subject of the documentary "The Best that Never Was" that aired nationwide Nov. 9.
"I was pleased with the way the film came out," Dupree said. "It left out a few things, but there was so much to get in."
Dupree was a truck driver for a while, but now he works with a company that is cleaning up the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast.
He has an interest in raising horses, helping youths and often forwards a daily devotion with a suggested Bible reading by e-mail to friends.
Now, just a week after the documentary, Dupree reports people are taking an interest in him again.
"All high school coaches should see this film. It wasn't intended to necessarily do this (create awareness), but it has happened. I think God had a hand in it. And college players say it has enlightened them (on how to deal with agents). Hopefully, it will help others avoid going through what I went through."
So, to the people who knew Dupree and were with him while history was being made, how well did filmmaker Jonathan Hock do?
Dupree's best friend, Alvin Kidd, was pleased.
"Finally, we got to tell the story," said Kidd, Dupree's longtime friend and former teammate. "I have had people come up to me and say they had no idea that all of that went on. They thought he was lazy and that he blew his opportunity. He's such an easy going guy."
Kidd and Dupree grew up together and were teammates during Dupree's glory days. When Dupree was a ninth grader, Kidd was older and talked Dupree's mom into letting him play on the varsity football team.
"She was worried about him getting hurt," Kidd said. "I told her that he was bigger and stronger than anybody else out there. He wasn't going to get hurt. If anything, he was probably going to hurt somebody.
"Finally, she looked at me and said, 'you take care of my baby. You don't let him get hurt.'"
Joe Wood, Dupree's high school coach, said he felt the film was accurate. But he said he learned some things he didn't know before.
"I thought it was a good film," said Wood of Philadelphia. "But there were a lot of things going on that I was not aware of at the time.
"I pretty much stayed out of the recruiting process. That was between Marcus and his mother. But if I had known some of the things that were going on, I would have stepped in. Marcus was a good kid and a good person."
For Dupree's younger brother, the film brought back many emotional memories.
His brother, Reggie Conners, was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to have an athletic career of his own. Marcus made it his life mission to see that Reggie was very much a part of his athletic career. When he scored a touchdown, he looked up in the stands and pointed to Reggie, something the younger brother has never forgotten.
Reggie recalled going to see him play at Oklahoma once. "When he got off the bus, he handed me a towel with his number on it," he said. "I was young when all of that was going on and don't remember a lot of things that happened. But I remember some of it."
For Reggie, who is married and living in Birmingham, watching the film was almost like a family reunion.
"I got to see my mom again," Reggie said. "I got to see my brother running the football again for Philadelphia. It was great."
Their mother, Cella Dupree Conners, died in 2004.
Dupree signed with the Oklahoma Sooners and touched greatness in his first season. But he left the school during his sophomore season, despondent and burned out about the way he felt he was being treated. Later, he went pro, got hurt and saw his career apparently come to an end. Dupree came back five years later in 1990 and did achieve a lifetime goal of playing in the NFL for a couple of seasons. But when that was over, most the money he earned as a pro football player was gone. His potential was never achieved.
The documentary is part of ESPN's "30 For 30" series. It reviews the network's top 30 stories of all time as part of its 30th anniversary celebration.
"The Best That Never Was" was directed by Hock of New York.
More than a year ago, film crews came to Philadelphia and interviewed people in Dupree's life. They attended the Philadelphia-Neshoba Central game and interviewed locals like James Mars. Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer and Ken Fairley, a minister in Hattiesburg who acted on Dupree's behalf during his recruitment and professional football career, gave their accounts. Those interviews along with old game films and news accounts were used to tell the story.
In the documentary Dupree marveled at the old black and white game films as he'd watch himself break a tackle and run. He'd never seen the films.
Hock, an eight-time Emmy Award winner, started his story by recounting the murders of the three civil rights workers in Philadelphia in 1964 only a month after Dupree was born and told how significant the murders were to the rest of the world. He dedicated the film to the murdered men, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
By 1981, a phenomenal high school football player named Marcus Dupree had emerged at Philadelphia High School and united the community as he thrilled crowds and eventually broke Hershel Walker's record for touchdowns.
Many say as white and black people sat in the same stands, cheering on the 6-foot-3, 230 pound Dupree, the healing of old wounds began and the outside world began to see Philadelphia in a different light.
Those who saw him play described Dupree as the best there ever was.
"I just handed the ball off and let him run," said Greg Smith, the Tornado quarterback at the time and now a Philadelphia businessman. "Unless you saw him in person, you wouldn't believe what he could do."
His physical ability drew college football recruiters from around the country to his mother's home in Philadelphia. Big name coaches waited outside his door to get 15 minutes or so to make their pitch. Then another came in. And another.
"You knew when he got the ball that something special was going to happen," said Cecil Price Jr., who played wide receiver at the time. "He was a joy to watch and a great teammate."
Price explained in the documentary how his late father loved and adored Dupree and went out of his way to help him obtain his commercial driver's license after Dupree's professional football career ended.
The senior Price, as a Neshoba County deputy sheriff, was implicated in the 1964 murders and served time in prison for violating the civil rights of the young men. The senior Price, just before his death in 2001, assisted prosecutors who later brought state murder charges in that case and convicted a man.
Willie Morris in 1983 published a book entitled "The Courting of Marcus Dupree" that chronicled Dupree's path, a work Hock has said inspired his film.
College football coaches have always recruited players, but this story changed everything. Recruiters were camped out at his home, staying in local hotels and following Dupree and his mother wherever they went. Dupree was receiving phone calls and visits from movie stars and former Heisman Trophy winners.
This attention drew other characters as well who sought to have a hand in it. Today, he said that proved to be his downfall.
The top three schools that interested Dupree were Oklahoma, Texas and Southern Mississippi.
Dupree said Southern Miss was really never in the picture.
"(Then head coach) Bobby Collins was leaving and they were going on probation," Dupree said "That pretty much eliminated Southern Miss."
At one point, Texas appeared to have him signed. But later, Dupree decided to go to Oklahoma.
"My mother and I made that decision," Dupree said. "She was a school teacher and she told me to write down a list of the things I wanted from a college program.
"I wanted to win the national championship and the Heisman Trophy. I wanted to travel all over the country," Dupree said. "I could get that at Oklahoma, and that's why it was the right decision for me."
Dupree said comments made in an interview during the film that said he called, saying he had made a serious mistake, are not true.
"I never called and said I made a mistake," Dupree said. "I do not regret signing at Oklahoma. My biggest mistake was leaving Oklahoma and not going back."
Dupree added that another untrue statement in the film had to do with his mother's double-wide trailer.
"Oklahoma did not buy that trailer," Dupree said. "My mother did, and I helped pay for it."
A different world
Dupree found things were different once he arrived at practice at Oklahoma. It was all business and he was one of a team of players. To him, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer went out of his way to find fault with him. His story stayed on the national news and he felt Switzer was always talking him down. Despite what he did Saturdays on the field during his freshman season, Dupree said he believed Switzer unfairly criticized him.
Dupree was/is a friendly person and described as almost "innocent" by friends. He came from a small town where everybody liked him and things were laid back. He loved being with his friends. At Oklahoma, it was all business and things ran at a different pace. Despite his exploits on Saturday afternoon, the Oklahoma coaches felt he needed to work harder in practice. They felt he would do even better if he worked harder.
This criticism did more to alienate Dupree than to get him to do better.
"Coach Switzer has said he should have handled me differently," Dupree said. "If he had just pulled me over to the side and talked to me and told me what was going on, I would have understood.
"I talked to him on the phone (last Friday) after the film came out and he told me that. He said he was sorry that it ended that way."
The rest is history. Dupree suffered a concussion during his sophomore year in a game with Texas. He went home and never came back.
At first, he disappeared. Best friend Kidd, then a player at Mississippi College, picked him up at a Jackson airport and hid Dupree at a friend's apartment. No one, not even Dupree's mother, knew where he was. Everyone was looking for him, including the FBI.
He finally surfaced and enrolled at Southern Miss. But when he learned he would have to sit out for two seasons, he left. He signed with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL. He played one full season but was having trouble with his hamstring. In his second season, he suffered a knee injury that ended his career with the Breakers.
Dupree had signed for $6 million with the Breakers but states he never saw the money. Dupree said that he had signed a power of attorney with Ken Fairley, who invested the money. Dupree said that he was later sued when those investments went bad.
"I had to write a big check," Dupree said. "It was that or go to jail."
After sitting around home in Philadelphia for five years, Dupree worked himself back into shape and played a couple of seasons with the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL. He was cut and football was over.
The film ends with Marcus Dupree standing in the middle of the field at Harpole Stadium.
He points out where his mom would be sitting with his brother. Dupree becomes emotional as he remembers how things were.
"I wanted them to be proud of me," he said.
Reggie said this week, "I love my brother and I'm very proud of him. I started crying at that point."
Gauging the reaction on social media and in interviews around town, Dupree made his hometown proud.
"Watching Marcus play football was fun! He made us proud!" Miriam Mars of Philadelphia wrote on the Democrat's Facebook site.
Former Philadelphia resident Daniel Skipper who played football with Dupree wrote, "Awesome!! Marcus was and always will be the best there ever was."
Trish Rickles Bennett of Philadelphia wrote, "Absolutely wonderful, powerful and beautifully done! Many, many great comments on Facebook and Twitter! Another Philly Proud moment!"
Philadelphia businessman Steve Wilkerson said the document was very positive for both the community and Marcus himself.
" I'm sure that it changed people's feelings on him," Wilkerson said. "If they already liked Marcus then they like him even more now. I followed Marcus' career and I remember watching his Fiesta Bowl game. I also feel that ESPN did a great job at showing Marcus, the Civil Rights Movement and how they were connected. Everyone that I know that watched the documentary thought it was positive."