Marcus Dupree: The best that never was

After a remarkable freshman season in 1982, the Heisman Trophy seemed to be Marcus Dupree's for the taking. But, after a loss to Texas the following season, Dupree flew home to Mississippi and never returned.
By Jake Trotter, Staff Writer, jtrotter@opubco.com Modified: November 8, 2010 at 10:15 pm •  Published: November 8, 2010
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On June 20, 1983, Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

After a remarkable freshman season, the Heisman Trophy seemed to be Dupree's for the taking. And behind Dupree, Barry Switzer's Sooners were primed to bring home another national championship.

But the headline of that SI article, 'Marcus Dupree: Can he coexist with his coach?' proved to be a harbinger of what was to come.

After a loss to Texas dropped the Sooners to 3-2, a woozy Dupree flew home to Mississippi.

And never came back.

In tonight's ESPN 30 for 30 premier of "The Best That Never Was," eight-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker Jonathan Hock chronicles the life of Dupree, which opens with Dupree doing what he does now for a living — driving a truck in Gulfport, Miss.

"Marcus, in my lifetime, was the most electrifying football player I'd ever seen, and I'm not alone when I say that," Hock told The Oklahoman. "Watching him carry the ball was unlike watching anyone else. For that greatness to just vanish, to just disappear, I couldn't leave it alone. It's been something of an obsession for me, to find out what happened, why it all went wrong.

"When ESPN asked me to do a film, and that I could do whatever I wanted, there was no question, I wanted to tell story of Marcus Dupree."

First, Hock had to find Dupree. Which proved to be no easy task.

No one in Dupree's hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., could tell Hock where Dupree was. Neither could anyone in Oklahoma.

After six months of searching, Hock was about to give up when — with the help of a private investigator — he finally located Dupree.

"When (Hock) came to me, I was like, 'Whoa, really?'" Dupree told The Oklahoman. "I was thrilled about it. Honored, as a matter of fact. We sat down and talked about it. He told me he wanted to put my life on film, and I said let's go for it."

The film is both sad and tragic. But also about finding contentment and making peace with the past.

Said Hock: "The story is so amazing in so many ways."

The film begins in Philadelphia, a town made infamous by the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers, later inspiring the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning."

Dupree, born just weeks after the slayings, helped repair some of the racial divide in Philadelphia with his amazing ability on the football field.

"Black and white were sitting together in the stands," Dupree said. "That was a special time."

Perhaps the most compelling interview subject in the film is Cecil Price Jr., a high school teammate and friend of Dupree's, who reflects about his father, the late Cecil R. Price, who as the deputy sheriff arrested the civil rights workers and was eventually found guilty of placing them into the hands of their killers.



What they’re saying about Marcus Dupree

Galen Hall, OU offensive coordinator, 1982-83:

“What a physically talented young man he was. The first time you saw him, you couldn't believe how he could run as fast as he could and catch the ball. Just a superior athlete for his size. It was a career that was shortened for various reasons and various people.”

Merv Johnson, OU assistant head coach and offensive line coach, 1982-83:

“The influence he (was under) from where he grew up kept pushing him to go pro. I think that had a lot to do with what happened. Coach Switzer's criticism of his conditioning in the (Fiesta) bowl game probably gave that guy (Kenneth Farley) ammunition and fuel to go ahead and finish the job. He might have won a couple of Heisman Trophies. There's never been many like him.”

Bobby Proctor, OU defensive backs coach, 1982-83:

“The first day he showed up here, Switzer let me take all the freshmen and do drills. He came up, left that defensive back sitting on his butt. Then he went over to defensive back, and he stuck us up in the nose. At Colorado, I asked Switzer, let me put him in on punt returns. He said ‘nah.' I said, ‘Come on, coach.' First play, he takes a punt back 77 yards.”

Mike Jones, OU receivers coach, 1982-83:

“The athletic ability he possessed, with his speed and soft hands and agility, was amazing. He returned punts, he could play receiver and running back, tight end. About any place you wanted him to play. The pressure from home was more than that kid could handle. Marcus was a great kid. He was fun to be around. He was never a problem. He practiced with a smile on his face. He had some character about him.”

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