It is a phrase that conjures up missed opportunity, even sadness, but Marcus Dupree is at peace with the title of his documentary: The Best That Never Was.
"There ain't no doubt that it's a good title for my story," said Dupree, arguably the greatest high school running back and the subject of a superb ESPN 30 For 30 documentary airing Tuesday night at 8 pm ET. "Everybody you talk to before or even now said I could have been the best."
Emerging out of Philadelphia, Miss., a city bathed in infamy two decades earlier after the brutal slaying of three civil rights workers, Dupree rushed for 5,283 yards and broke Herschel Walker's high school record for touchdowns (87). As a senior in 1981, he was the subject of an epic recruiting battle before he signed with Oklahoma, then coached by Barry Switzer. After initially being relegated to the bench, Dupree exploded onto the national scene, finishing his freshman year with 13 touchdowns and a 7.8 yard per carry average. His Fiesta Bowl record of 239 yards on 17 carries still stands.
With Heisman Trophy anticipation in the air, Dupree was featured on the June 20, 1983 cover of Sports Illustrated, but continuing conflicts with the Oklahoma coaching staff prompted him to quit the team midway through his sophomore year. In March '84 he signed a five-year, $6 million contract with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers and had a respectable, though not spectacular, first season. The next year he injured his left knee, ending his USFL career. Out of football for five years, Dupree rehabbed his knee back in Philadelphia and ended up making the Los Angeles Rams as a journeyman running back. He retired after two seasons, and then faded from the national scene and into the workaday world.
Documentary filmmaker Jonathan Hock, who at 46 is the same age as Dupree, had long been interested in Dupree's story after reading The Courting of Marcus Dupree, a look at sports and race in the South via the recruiting of Dupree by the late Mississippi novelist, Willie Morris. An eight-time Emmy Award winner and the writer and director of the critically-acclaimed documentary The Lost Son of Havana, Hock knew he wanted to tell Dupree's story when ESPN approached him in 2008 to be part of its documentary series.
Finding Dupree was not easy, though. Hock spent a couple of months searching for him to little avail. Finally, he hired a private investigator who found court records on Dupree's ex-wife that led to a church in Tallahassee. The filmmaker left his name and number at the church and the next morning he got a phone call: "Is this Jon Hock? This is Marcus Dupree." At the time Hock was on train back from Boston after a meeting with the Farrelly Brothers on Havana, which follows baseball great Luis Tiant on his first trip to Cuba in 40 years. "I said, 'Marcus you don't know how happy I am to hear your voice,'" Hock said. "He said, 'Hey, I'm happy to hear your voice, too.'"
Dupree had been driving a truck out of Tallahassee, one of a number of careers he'd held since retiring from football including casino greeter, B-level pro wrestler, CFL and NFL scout, and his current job working in Pascagoula, Miss. as part of the cleanup on the BP oil spill.
"I didn't know what to expect," Dupree said upon meeting Hock in early 2009 to discuss the project. "I hadn't talked about stuff in a long time but I thought it was a way to tell my story and finally get the truth out."
Hock traveled to Mississippi in March 2009, Sept. 2009 and last summer for filming. Among those in Philadelphia he interviewed was Cecil Price Jr., a high school teammate of Dupree's who reflects for the first time on film about his father, the late Cecil R. Price, who as a deputy sheriff arrested the civil rights workers in 1964 and was eventually found guilty of delivering them into the hands of their killers.
As word traveled around Philadelphia that a filmmaker was doing a story on Dupree, Hock was eventually able to track down 16 millimeter black and white footage of Dupree playing at Philadelphia High. "This was our Holy Grail, because if you don't have the footage, you are just sort of going on everybody's word how good he was," Hock said. "When we saw the film and it was like: 'Son of a bitch, he was that good.' I was like, 'Boys, we have our ourselves a movie.'"
One of the film's memorable interview subjects is Switzer, who called his handling of Dupree his greatest coaching regret. "The only thing that hurts so bad was the stuff that Coach Switzer said in the film about how he didn't want the upperclassman to get jealous of me," Dupree said. "All he had to do was pull me into his office and tell me that. It kind of hurts that I might have missed three Heisman Trophy's and a national championship because of a lack of communication."
Dupree has three sons -- Marquez, 28, Landon, 25, and Rashad, 18 -- and says he tries to go back to Philadelphia once a month to see his six-year-old grandson's Little League games. Neither Dupree's children nor his ex-wife, Katrina Rush, chose to participate in the film, and Hock focuses little on Dupree's personal life after his football career ended. "I made the decision that this film couldn't be a comprehensive, in-depth story of Marcus's history," Hock said. "Rather, it had to be the story of his football life and its impact on the very special town that he comes from. The kind of dad or husband that he is or was is definitely part of his history, but ultimately I had to decide that it wasn't a core part of his story as a football player or his town's racial history."
Dupree harbors no regrets about what could have been and seems mostly content with his life's journey. "My life could be a little better, I mean, it wouldn't hurt to have $10 million in the bank," Dupree said. "I saw a lot at a young age and I'm glad this is happening now. This film is something my Mom (who died in 2004) wanted and I do think God has blessed me."
"I think it's complicated to be Marcus Dupree," Hock said. "He was not in hiding but I'm not sure how comfortable it is to be an honest, hardworking guy making a living when so many people you meet hear your name and expect you to be something else. The idea of truly great promise unfulfilled is very sad, but Marcus is not a sad person and that makes this story hopeful in the end. After the doctors told him he would never be able to play football again, for him to turn his life and body around and to end up making the NFL, that's a redemptive tale."
As the longtime executive producer of Howard Stern's radio program, Gary Dell'Abate has booked his share of famous and infamous sports guests, including hosting a mistress beauty pageant this year for the alleged paramours of Tiger Woods. Last week Dell'Abate released his first book, "They Call Me Baba Booey," a memoir of his life and 27 years as Stern's producer (the show airs on Sirius XM). A huge sports fan, SI.com asked Dell'Abate for the Top 5 people in sports he'd most like to book for Stern to interview:
1. Tiger Woods "If anyone could get to the bottom of things, it would be Howard. I would want to know what he was thinking and how he thought he could get away with it while being so famous."
2. Mike Tyson "I have been very close to getting him on the show for years but can't quite pull the trigger. I heard he's a fan. I think he would love Howard and it would a great interview."
3. Muhammad Ali "I would have loved to have had him when he was younger and his mind was 100 percent, but I still think he could be a great guest. Who doesn't love Ali?"
4. LeBron James "He seems very quiet and not that talkative, but Howard's strength is drawing people like that out of their shell. He's the biggest name in the game right now."
5. Bob Costas "This one is more for me. He's seen it all and is the quintessential sportscaster. I'd just like to meet him!"
ESPN's E:60 will air an impressive, albeit disturbing, report Tuesday night (7:00 pm ET) on the continuing effects of world's worst industrial accident, the 1984 gas leak that spewed from a storage tank at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. As E:60's producers discovered, the children of that community continue to play cricket on contaminated playgrounds.
Last year ESPN feature producer David Picker came across an article about the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. Curious, he started reading up on the subject and found an article from a British newspaper that mentioned the only signs of life at the factory were cricket balls left behind by children. "That's when it hit me: I had potentially found a very compelling sports story," said Picker. "I monitored the story for several months, and last June we hired someone in Bhopal to be our eyes and ears on the ground. Once we were able to confirm that children still regularly played at the factory and gather more information on them, we went into production."
Co-producer Yaron Deskalo and correspondent Jeremy Schaap traveled to Bhopal two months ago for firsthand reporting and E:60 tested soil in and around the factory site on Sept. 1 with the help of SGS, a global environmental testing firm. The firm found massive levels of contamination in the playing fields. "This story illustrates how sports binds us," Picker said. "The kids from the slums live in very difficult conditions, but a simple game of cricket brings joy to their lives. It's ironic that their escape is taking place on contaminated soil. I think that will resonate with viewers."