If you were going to create the perfect college running back, you’d want him to have the strength of Zeus, the vision of Artemis, the speed of Hermes and the controlled rage of Ares.
In other words, you would create Marcus Dupree.
Fate watched over him like it watched over Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece; like it watched over Odysseus in his quest to reclaim his place as king of Ithaca.
However, Dupree’s unfortunate circumstances overshadowed his brilliance. It is only in the past decade that it has become clear how great he was on a football field.
His story is the kind that gains power with each retelling. It accurately personifies a time period in the America when we as a nation were still grappling with our own power, our talents and our fears the way Marcus Dupree grappled with his.
In a day when ESPN was still in its infancy, Mack Brown was just another offensive coordinator at Iowa State, Bob Stoops was in college at Iowa and Run–D.M.C. was still building its reputation as an underground musical revolution, Marcus Dupree was the best high school football player in the country.
Even by today’s standards, Dupree was a physical specimen and super–freak athlete. Coaches that came to his high school were flabbergasted when they saw Dupree bench-press 400 pounds 10 times, then light up their stop watches on a football field.
Dupree was one of those rare running backs you read about who was blessed with strength, power and speed. But in the end, his body could not hold up to his heroic powers, and his efforts were dismissed from the memory of so many before his 20th birthday.
A STAR SHINES BRIGHT
In the beginning, all Marcus Dupree needed to do was breathe.
In 1981, at Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia, Miss., Dupree was the most heavily recruited high school prospect in the country. When Eric Dickerson, Herschel Walker, Billy Sims and Craig James were still forming their own legacies as great college running backs, Dupree was set to eclipse them all.
“I just tried to be Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Herschel in one body, really,” Dupree said. “I wanted a little bit of everybody. I wanted to be the one guy who could do it all. I could return punts and return kicks. I played free safety. I could play linebacker if I needed to. I could play quarterback if I needed to. At one point, [Barry] Switzer did put me at quarterback. I was running the Wild Cat [offense] before it was cool.”
On film, No. 22 jumped off the screen to college recruiters. Sports writers who saw Dupree’s savage running style and exceptional acceleration compared him to NFL greats like O.J. Simpson and Jim Brown. It was reputation that was well-deserved.
On the very first play of his high school career, Dupree returned a kickoff 75 yards for a touchdown. He reportedly ran an amazing time of 4.4 seconds in the 40 yard dash as a 210-pound freshman.
As a sophomore in 1979, Dupree had his coming-out party on the grid iron. He made his presence known to the rest of the country by running over, around and through opposing teams. He rushed for 1,850 yards and 28 touchdowns.
During his junior year at Philadelphia High, Dupree rushed for 1,550 yards and 20 touchdowns. It was after this year that he knew he was something special and that he had a chance to do something special.
In his senior season, Dupree became the sole proprietor of the Tornadoes' offense. His team rallied around his talents and will to run. Entering the final game of the ’81 season, Dupree had amassed 21 touchdowns and needed five more to pass Walker for most touchdowns scored by a prep player — and he got it. He finished the season with a Philadelphia High record 5,283 yards rushing, averaging 8.3 yards per carry and scoring 87 touchdowns for his career — one more touchdown than Walker.
“Every time I put my hand on the ball, I wanted to score a touchdown” Dupree said.
A STAR GLEAMS AND BEGINS TO FLICKER
Dupree was the second coming of Earl Campbell, the heir apparent to Herschel Walker and the future of college and professional football all before his 18th birthday.
At 6-foot-3-inches with legs the size of magnolia trunks and arms as strong as oak tree branches, Dupree became the prized recruit of the 1981 high school prep class. He received letters, phone calls and visits from NCAA football powerhouses including LSU, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, Southern Miss, UCLA, Pittsburgh and OU.
“My mom, brother and friends were excited. It was a chance to move up to the next level,” Dupree said. “Everybody was really excited about it, no matter where I chose to go.”
Although as a kid Dupree said he wanted to attend Mississippi State, it was the savvy recruiting by coach Barry Switzer that led Dupree to choose OU.
“Coach Switzer had swagger like no other coach had,” Dupree said. “And that’s what I liked about him.”
In a clip from ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “The Best That Never Was” released to The Daily, it was revealed that one close friend of Dupree — Rev. Ken Fairley — remembers Dupree calling him just three days after signing his letter of intent to OU to say that he did not want to attend OU anymore. Fairley called Dupree “possibly the best athlete in the United States at that time.”
Dupree was the biggest thing that ever came out of his home town of Philadelphia, Miss. It was with the weight of the whole town on his shoulders that he left for Norman in the summer of 1982.
In the fall, Switzer changed his offensive scheme from the wishbone to the I-formation. The difference: In the wishbone, the defense determines after the snap who gets the ball; in the I-formation, it is predetermined in the huddle who gets the ball. Dupree was going to be the tailback in the I-formation. The onus was placed on him to perform.
“At first it was kind of rough,” Dupree said. “I didn’t play in the first four games. I didn’t play a lot, but when [Switzer] finally let me play, it got better. I just wanted to play. I didn’t feel any pressure. No pressure.”
Dupree formally introduced himself to the casual sports fan as the next great running back of college football in a game against Kansas on Oct. 16, 1982. He rushed for 158 yards and was named Big 8 Offensive Player of the Week.
Dupree only started seven games as a freshman, but he rushed for a total of 1,144 yards. He was the first freshman ever to lead OU in rushing.
In the 1983 Fiesta Bowl, Dupree cemented his legacy as one of college football’s greatest running backs. Dupree rushed for 239 yards on the ground from 17 carries against Arizona State in one half with a broken finger.
He eventually left the game after pulling his hamstring in the second quarter, but was still named the game's MVP and set a new Fiesta Bowl record for rushing yards.
After scoring 13 touchdowns and leading all freshmen in rushing, Dupree was named Big 8 Newcomer of the Year and an AP All-Big 8 first teamer.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Dupree should have been hailed for the great athlete he was in that amazing ’82 season, but it will be remembered as the last time Barry Switzer and Marcus Dupree met on congenial terms as a part of the OU family.
In a Jun. 20, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, Dupree was featured on the cover with a caption questioning whether he could coexist with his coach.
The 19-year-old Dupree told Sports Illustrated, “I had the impression before I went to Oklahoma from just watching Coach Switzer on TV that he's a hard guy and that he treats his players hard. That turns out to be true. I think I'll play this year, but it could be my last. Coach Switzer says I don't practice that well. The problem is, it's not like high school when Coach [Joe] Wood made it fun. At Oklahoma, it's not fun. I don't know.”
Switzer had reportedly lambasted Dupree about his weight from the start of his freshman year, claiming that Dupree — who was a muscular 233 pounds during his senior year of high school — was at least 13 pounds overweight and lazy. Switzer had earned a reputation as being a motivator, but his tactics didn’t work on Dupree.
After the 1983 game against Texas, Dupree went missing.
His coaches, the players or his friends could not find him. A week later, it was reported that Dupree had boarded a plane to Mississippi and would not return to OU.
Jonathan Hock, director of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Marcus Dupree, “The Best That Never Was,” remembers the when he heard of Dupree’s mysterious disappearance.
“It was a sensational story in the history of sports. The best player in the country vanished," Hock said. "And to think, he would never been allowed to leave today. Never in a million years.”
Hock said of Switzer and Dupree’s spat, “Coach Switzer won the national championship in 1985 with the team that Marcus would have been a senior on, but he feels such regret about it all the same because there was such a genuine love of watching the game played at its highest level. That’s what Marcus brought, and what we were all deprived of after he left.”
Looking back on it all, Dupree said he wishes that he and Switzer had a chance to talk it out.
“I wish he would have treated me a little bit better. There was such a lack of communication," Dupree said. "I know I shouldn’t have left [OU], but I still love Oklahoma and I still love watching [the Sooners] play.”
SEEKING SALVATION IN THE PROS
Dupree followed through on his threat in the Sports Illustrated article, and at 19 years old decided to forego his sophomore season to leave OU for the University of Southern Mississippi.
The move allowed him to move closer to home, but Dupree could not handle not being allowed to play. He decided to make another move; this time, to the United States Football League.
Because the NFL did not allow college football players to enter into the NFL draft until the end of their third year in college, Dupree signed with USFL’s Portland Breakers. He rushed for 684 yards and nine touchdowns, but did not resemble the player he once was at OU.
1n 1985 and 1986, Dupree missed two more years of football with knee injuries he sustained in the USFL. He was picked in the 12th round of the 1986 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams, but played sparingly.
“My knees couldn’t hold up,” Dupree said.
He played his last regular season game in 1991 at the age of 27, 10 years after he captured the attention of a nation of sports fans.
Today, Dupree is working as a supervisor for BP in the Mississippi Gulf oil spill cleanup.
“I supervise about 200 people,” Dupree said. “My grandson is playing football. And life is good.”
In the end, Dupree was bound by human frailties he had seemed immune to at 17. Maybe it was because his muscles were so big and his bone structure could no longer take the stress.
Maybe it was because he carried his teams throughout his high school and college careers. Or maybe it was because — deep down somewhere in a place only Dupree knows — he really didn’t want to play football anymore after that magical 1982 season.
Only Fate knows why a star so bright and an athlete so talented was allowed to fade so quickly.
Novelist and native Mississippian Willie Morris wrote a book about Dupree's recruitment by college programs, "The Courting of Marcus Dupree.“ In it, Morris said, "Among other things, he was quite simply the greatest running back I and many others had ever seen. He was a funny, kind and complicated kid who happened to be black in Neshoba County, and he carried a big burden. But the old elusive tale, I pray, goes much deeper than that, which is why I hope the tale itself will survive beyond football and the 1980s in the Deep South.”
It’s 2010, and Morris’ wish is satisfied.