The Football Star We Never Knew

Marcus Dupree was once the biggest name in the future of football. The superstar that he did not become and the man he is today are the subject of a new documentary airing Tuesday on ESPN. Host Scott Simon talks with Dupree and filmmaker Jonathan Hock about the film, The Best that Never Was.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Marcus Dupree was once the biggest name in the future of football. Back in the early 1980s in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Mr. Dupree was the most highly recruited high school football player in the country - probably of all time. Willie Morris wrote a bestseller called "The Courting of Marcus Dupree." He was a fleet running back who could seem to sense tacklers and evade or shed them like a Stealth bomber. People who saw him play said it was like watching Jim Brown play against a bunch of high schoolers.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Best That Never Was")

Unidentified Man #1: He had more God-given talent than anybody I ever saw.

Unidentified Man #2: Marcus could have been the best that ever was, but he was the guy that never did it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: If he had never gotten hurt, I think he could have been as good as he wanted to be. I mean he could have been the best.

Unidentified Man #1: Those that saw him play know what they saw was greatness. They saw greatness and they only got to see a little bit of it. And that's what they still talk about today, 'cause they didn't get to see all of it.

SIMON: The superstar that Marcus Dupree did not become and the man he is today are the subject of a new documentary called "The Best That Never Was." It will be broadcast Tuesday on ESPN.

The filmmaker is Jonathan Hock. He joins us now from our New York.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. JONATHAN HOCK (Director, "The Best That Never Was"): Honored to be here, Scott. Thanks.

SIMON: And also in the studio, we're so pleased to welcome Marcus Dupree. Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Dupree.

Mr. MARCUS DUPREE (Former NFL Running Back): Thank you.

SIMON: Mr. Dupree, seeing films of you play in your high school and one year of college career, it really does look as if everybody else is on Jupiter. They're kind of running. Everything is very slow and heavy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And you are on Earth and just zipping around them. You look like you're in different universes.

Mr. DUPREE: You know, I finally got a chance to really go back and watch some of the high school films, and it did shock me. Im like, oh, I can't believe that was me.

Mr. HOCK: We searched and searched, that was our Holy Grail, to find this footage, and finally we found one of the old players on the team who had basically taken the film cans from the coach's office before he graduated and had held onto it for 30 years and had it in his closet. And we finally found him.

There's this old 16 millimeter black and white footage, and we looked at it and it was like - and our hands are shaking and we threaded up the film and rolled it, and sure enough, he was doing it like they said. It was real. And we looked at each other in the cutting room and said, wow, now we've got a movie. It really happened.

SIMON: Let's remind people, in a sense - Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1964, the three civil rights workers were so tragically murdered there. It was a dateline of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Mr. HOCK: Yeah. You know, that was part of the mythology of Marcus Dupree, for this young African-American Superman coming out of this town and becoming the touchstone for healing in this town.

SIMON: So there were reportedly representatives from - was it 300 colleges who tried to recruit you?

Mr. DUPREE: Yes.

SIMON: In those days, did they - forgive me - but did they offer things like convertibles or something?

Mr. DUPREE: Yeah, they did. I can't lie and say they didn't. I got - I think the most I got offered was $250,000 a year. But me and my mom said that, you know, Marcus, if it's for you it's going to come to you. And you don't want to be up under somebody's thumb and you can go earn your own money.

SIMON: From high school you what to play for Coach Barry Switzer at Oklahoma.

Mr. DUPREE: Right.

SIMON: This didn't seem to be a football marriage made in heaven.

Mr. DUPREE: Never(ph) like I thought it should have been.

SIMON: He said that he recognized your God-given talent, but also did what the other players to feel like somehow he was favoring you.

Mr. DUPREE: Right. And I wish he would have told me that. I told a couple of reporters that the other day, with him not telling me that, the lack of communication, has caused me three Heisman Trophies, has caused me a lot of sadness. And all he had to do was just come to me and say, Marcus, look, we're going to do this, this, this. So just be prepared and don't get upset because I don't want the other seniors to be upset at me. You know what? We'd probably been talking a whole different story right now.

SIMON: You play in the Fiesta Bowl. You have to leave three times. You had a broken finger, an ankle and a pulled hamstring. You still gained, what was it, 239 yards?

Mr. DUPREE: Yes, sir.

Mr. HOCK: In that game, Marcus played in 34 out of 69 plays that Oklahoma ran, so that's fewer than half.

Mr. DUPREE: Right.

Mr. HOCK: And he still set the all-time Fiesta Bowl rushing record, which still stands 27 years later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You wound up transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi, learned that you'd have to be red-shirted, essentially sit on the bench 'cause of NCAA regulations, for two years. And then you wind up turning pro. You signed up with the U.S. Football League but injury continued to be a problem for you.

Mr. DUPREE: It's the same hamstring, same - I mean the same thing.

Mr. HOCK: There have been times watching footage of Marcus running as a young man and you think just maybe muscles that big weren't ever meant to move that fast, that just the physics of it...

Mr. DUPREE: Yeah.

Mr. HOCK: ...was just something that couldn't be sustained, that a 233 pound man to run nine five hundred, that's just too much.

SIMON: Could you take a moment and tell us about your little brother - your inspiration?

Mr. DUPREE: Me and my mom and my family found out that Reggie wasn't going to be able to walk. He went through a series, about five operations on each leg and so he could eventually try to walk with crutches, just to stop his legs from shrinking up and all that stuff. And just growing up, seeing him, you know, sit there and lay in a bed and just the stuff that he couldn't do as an average kid and how much stuff he had to go through, and it just wore on me and I just took it on myself to try to be the best athlete I could and try to just run for me and him and my mom, basically.

SIMON: So you left the game for five years.

Mr. DUPREE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: You start working out, and it's - I mean it's amazing. You left professional football with injuries and you managed to come back and play for the Los Angeles Rams.

Mr. DUPREE: I said, well, I didn't want to die and say, what if, what if?

SIMON: You played a couple seasons for the Rams.

Mr. DUPREE: Right. It didn't matter about the money. It didn't matter about starting. I did what I had to do and enjoyed the game. And like I said in the film, this time I took the time to walk out on that field and walk down that tunnel and smell the air, smell everything about playing the game of football, talked to the fans and enjoyed.

SIMON: Mr. Dupree, that phrase: God given talent, I guess you've heard it all of your life. To have that phrase in your life, what's it like when God seems to withdraw that talent?

Mr. DUPREE: Well, you know, it really didn't bother me. My grandfather was a minister and my mom was a church secretary and so whatever God has in your path you just got to deal with it and deal with the hand that's dealt, and that's how I always looked at it. God did give me a lot of talent. I was blessed to have this talent to show people what I could do.

SIMON: Well, Mr. Dupree, very nice talking to you.

Mr. DUPREE: Thank you.

SIMON: And Jonathan Hock, thanks very much too.

Mr. HOCK: Thank you, Scott. I really appreciate it.

SIMON: Marcus Dupree and Jonathan Hock, in New York. Mr. Hock's film, "The Best That Never Was," premieres Tuesday on ESPN.

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