The cotton is ripe in the wide fields along Louisiana Highway 1, resembling heavy, wet snow. It's October, and it's raining hard. Lawns are flooded. The runoff ditches are full. Scattered along the two-lane road are reminders of summer and its tourists, boarded-up wooden shacks with signs reading BAIT, FIREWORKS and SHELLED PECANS. On a crackly radio broadcast of the Saints-Rams game on this Sunday come reports from Miami: Dolphins and Oilers, still no score. No TDs for Duper. At least not yet.
This is a road Mark Duper has traveled often. He drove it long before he ever touched a football and started lighting up the NFL. Highway 1 runs up through Louisiana like a scratch across a boot, from toe to ankle to calf, and for the first 23 years of his life, Duper lived or went to school within a mile of it. Talk about roots.
On this wet afternoon, just a few hundred yards off the same road, in the central Louisiana town of Mansura, Mark's parents, Doris and Walter, are inside the new five-bedroom brick house, complete with pool, that their youngest son has given them. Doris is getting misty-eyed talking about it. "I love this house so much," she says. "I still can't believe it. I don't go anywhere. I just spend all my time in here, going from room to room. Markie, he's so good to me. Sometimes I go out on the porch and look around, and I just start to cry."
The TV in the living room is tuned to Miami-Houston. "Twenty yards a catch," says Walter. "That's his average." Walter is a retired plumber, disabled by chronic bronchitis. He never followed sports much, but he knows Mark's stats—51 receptions last year, 10 touchdowns, a Dolphin-record 1,003 yards. And another bushel of numbers this year—53 catches, 1,022 yards and seven TDs through the undefeated Dolphins' 24-23 win over the Eagles on Sunday. The TV announcers are using Mark's nickname. "They call him Super," says Walter, smiling. "Super Duper. I like that." He chuckles.
Doris is afraid to watch her 5'9", 187-pound son getting hit by 230-pound linebackers. She suggests a tour of the house. "Markie chose all this furniture," she says. "Wouldn't let me in the house until everything was perfect. I was working at the old-folks' home then, cleaning, and he didn't like that. I was having trouble with pinched nerves in my hands. When we first moved in he'd carry me to bed like a baby. He'd say, 'You took care of me, now I'm going to take care of you.' He even wanted to have someone in every week to take care of this place. I told him, 'I at least can keep my own house clean.' "
She goes into a den, the trophy room. "These are for track," she says, pointing to a row of plaques Mark earned for winning state Class B high school titles in the triple jump, long jump and 100- and 220-yard dashes in 1976 and '77. Here is a color photo of Mark, one finger raised, crossing the line as the winning anchor for Northwestern (La.) State University in the finals of the 400-meter relay at the 1981 NCAA track and field championships. Here is a competitor's pass from the 1980 Olympic trials, at which Mark finished seventh in the 200-meter dash and reached the semifinals of the 100. Here are high school basketball trophies, a 1970 woodworking ribbon from the 4-H and certificates from a grade school piano recital and a "Junior Deputy Sheriff" course given by the Avoyelles Parish sheriff's office. Oddly, half the awards in the room are inscribed "Mark Dupas" instead of "Mark Duper." Oddly, too, there is very little to suggest that Mark Duper ever played football.
Finally, the inevitable comes: There's a whoop from the living room; it's Marino to Duper, in the end zone. The Dolphins are on their way to a 28-10 victory. "Sometimes," says Doris Duper, shaking her head, "this all just doesn't seem possible."
There he went, scorching a takeoff route down the left sideline of the Pontiac Silverdome. But the ball was underthrown. Mark Duper looked up straight over his head, sank to his knees and caught the pass on his fingertips. "That one catch sold me," says Dolphin coach Don Shula.
The BLESTO scouting camp in the spring of 1982 in Pontiac brought Duper to the fore. "I knew I wasn't thought much of by the scouts, so I had to show them something," he says. To most of the judges gathered in the Silverdome that day, Duper was just another track man, albeit a gifted one, with 10.21 speed for the 100 meters, 20.77 for the 200. He had never played a down of organized football until walking on at Northwestern (La.) State in the fall of his junior year, 1980, and he'd pretty much wasted that season as a backup tailback. Only after switching to wide receiver as a senior and hauling in 24 passes for an average of 24.7 yards per catch had he drawn any attention.
But speed was Duper's selling point. A few days before the tryout camp, several pro scouts and his coach at Northwestern State, A.L. Williams, had timed Duper in the 40 along with teammate Victor Oatis, later a wide receiver with the Colts. "We got 4.29 for Oatis and 4.28 for Duper," says Williams. "We all thought our watches were fouled up. But the watches all read the same." The only NFL player ever to record a faster time is world-record high hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah of the 49ers, who clocked a 4.18. "I think he could have been one of the world's greatest 200-meter runners," says Duper's college track coach, Jerry Dyes.
But after that Silverdome catch, Shula projected Duper as a potentially great receiver. "He caught the ball with his hands, not against his chest like most track people," Shula says. "He was the fastest player in the draft, very quick and a tremendous all-around athlete." Miami made Duper a surprise second-round pick in 1982. "I was sure I'd go to Buffalo," says Duper. "I'd worked with [Bills quarterback] Joe Ferguson a lot the summer before my senior year, and I know he was pushing to get me. Joe had a house in Natchitoches [site of Northwestern State], and he'd come by the field house in the off-season. I always made it my business to be there."
"You could see the raw ability and the want-to," says Ferguson, "but he just didn't have any knowledge of what he was supposed to do. All he knew how to do was run down real hard and then cut in or cut out."
Even after he was drafted, Duper's lack of polish shocked some of his teammates. "He was doing stuff you see in Pop Warner," says fellow wideout Vince Heflin. "I was saying, 'How did this guy get drafted in the second round?' "
That question lingered throughout the 1982 season. Duper played a grand total of two downs. He hurt his ankle in training camp and then, soon after recovering, pulled a hamstring in a 40-yard postpractice match race against Dolphin cornerback William Judson. Shula was not pleased. But he was patient. He trusted his judgment. He remembered what Williams had told Wally English, a Dolphin assistant coach then: "Give Duper two years, and he'll improve more than you can possibly believe." After the season, Shula asked his son David, the Dolphins' new receiving coach, to make Duper his special development project.
Mark Duper's unfulfilled love had always been football. As a child he'd rooted for the Steelers and spent hours on the floor buzzing plastic figures across the grid of his electric football game. He would tell his parents, "Someday I'm going to be a running back," and then go outside to toss a ball around with his three older brothers, Sigfrieud, Walter Jr. and A.C.
Unfortunately, the Dupers were living in Moreauville (pop. 853), seven miles south of Marksville on Highway 1, and Moreauville didn't have an organized football team. Moreauville didn't have much of anything, really, besides a gin mill, a tractor dealership and a muddy creek. At one point Mark asked his parents if he could move in with a family in some other town that at least had a high school team. But no. The Dupers shared a tiny white house just half a mile from Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic church, which they attended. They were a close family. When Doris Duper's sons were toddlers, she loaded them into a little red wagon and pulled them half a mile to the Our Lady of Sorrow parochial school, where she worked as a cook. "Where we lived, we could walk to everything," says Mark.
Sigfrieud, now 36, was once a running back at Marksville High, before Moreauville got its own high school. But his career had ended there. "He was good," says Doris. "He tried to get into a school [Southwestern Louisiana] where he was good enough to play, but they wouldn't take him." She looks down, as if embarrassed. "You know, when they had all that stuff going around...that segregation stuff."
"They wouldn't take his application," says Walter Sr. "They didn't send our money back, either."
Mark met no such obstacles in joining the team at Northwestern State. He was in school on a track and field scholarship, and Dyes, his coach, had no objection to his trying football. "Joe Delaney talked to him and Victor [Oatis] about trying it," Dyes says. "The three of them were on that relay team that won the NCAAs. They were pretty close. That's how it started."
Delaney was Northwestern State's starting tailback. In 1981 he joined the Kansas City Chiefs and enjoyed two productive seasons. But in the summer of 1983, Delaney drowned back home in Monroe, La. while trying to save three young boys who had fallen into a mud-hole at a construction site. "Joe would always tell me, 'C'mon, Dupes, get out there. Give it a shot,' " says Duper. "Joe was a special guy. He made me realize that I could do it, too."
Duper doesn't dwell on Delaney's death. There have been disturbing reminders of mortality throughout his life. His given names, Mark Kirby, are those of a cousin who also drowned. Two of his Dolphin teammates have died in accidents since he joined the team. One of his best friends from college, an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, was killed in a car crash last summer. Duper, always matter-of-fact, shrugs. "You have to believe that everything happens for a reason," he says.
It was at Northwestern State that the nickname Super Duper caught on. Some of Mark's high school friends had used it first, but back in Moreauville there was confusion over whether Duper was really Mark's last name. "The name is actually Dupas [pronounced du-PAH]," says Mark's brother A.C., 30, a salesman at a Radio Shack in Miami. "But when my father went into the Army, before World War II, the guy that signed him up didn't believe there was such a name. He said, 'I'm going to make you Duper.' " Walter Dupas thus became Walter Duper on all his government records. "They wouldn't let my wife cash my paycheck if she used Dupas," he says. All four of their children have Duper on their birth certificates, but all were also listed in school as Dupas by officials who knew better. Van Laborde, Mark's high school track coach, says, "It was around his sophomore year that he wanted to start calling himself Super Duper. I told him, 'There's no way, man. Your name's Dupas. That's what you are, son.' "
"I am Mark Duper," insists Super.
At Northwestern State, Duper's persistence quickly earned him the respect of Williams. He would attend spring football practice each day after finishing his track workout, and would sneak into live scrimmages. "I finally had to forbid him from wearing pads," says Williams. "I was worried if anything happened the track coach might kill me."
"I said that I'd make the pros, and everybody told me I was crazy," says Duper. "But I was willing to work for it. I've always thought big and gotten what I wanted. I knew I wasn't crazy."
It might be an overstatement to say that David Shula made Mark Duper a great receiver, because others helped—not least, Duper himself. Duper is the one who bought his own projector and watched game films at home, the one who spent the summer of '83 drilling under David Shula's guidance, the one who stayed after practices that fall with a rookie quarterback named Dan Marino, working on routes.
But David Shula, four months younger than Duper—both are 25—was his dedicated mentor. As a receiver at Dartmouth and for one season with the Colts, David had great hands, solid technique, sharp patterns and no speed. What he saw in Duper were great hands, poor technique, sloppy patterns and too much speed to control. "He'd get down in his stance, then stand straight up before starting to run," recalls David Shula. "One day I told him I could beat him in a 20-yard sprint—which is ridiculous—I run a 4.9 40. So we got down in position and started, and Mark stood straight up. He beat me, but not by much. Afterward I said, 'All right, how would you do it in a real race? Show me a track start.' He got down and blew off the ball so fast, people were ooh-ing and aah-ing."
Under the guidance of Shula and veterans like Nat Moore, Duper learned to stay low, to keep his arms closer to his sides, to run precise routes and to control his speed and use it to the greatest advantage. "I told him the trick is to look like you're running full speed—and then accelerate," says Moore. Duper learned to size up defenses so well that Tom Keane, Miami's defensive backfield coach, says, "He probably reads coverages as good as any receiver in the league." Duper and Marino broke into the Dolphin starting lineup together in the sixth week of the 1983 season, and a passing attack that at the time ranked 28th—dead last—in the NFL has soared ever since.
These days the compliments flow. "The only way to cover Mark is to double him, put a rotation on him, hit him at the line," says Keane. "Even that won't necessarily work, and it can open up things for the other receivers." And how: Mark Clayton, Duper's wideout buddy, has caught 40 passes this season, 10 for touchdowns; Moore has caught 28. Adds Buffalo's Ferguson, "What makes Mark so good is that he's strong enough to shake off a jam at the line and quick enough to run away from people."
Ferguson's assessment of Duper's personality holds up, too. "He was always quiet and low-key, the kind of guy who was always happy. If he made a mistake he'd say, 'No problem. Let's try it over.' " Duper is solid, from his tree-trunk thighs to his concern for his loved ones. He takes good care of his girl friend, Renee Jones, who grew up just off Highway 1 in Natchitoches and who has decorated his Miami condo with a collection of brass dolphins. Mark gave brother A.C. a condo in Fort Lauderdale last year. As a sign of his loyalty to Omega Psi Phi, he had the three Greek letters burned into his shoulders. "He said that was the only way to be a pure one," says Doris Duper. "They branded him with a hot iron."
As Mark shows a visitor his condo he proudly points out every detail. "Look at how well they matched the seams on this flowered wallpaper," he says. "Beautiful job on the coping. But here," he pokes at sloppily grouted bathroom tile, "this has to be fixed. People do a job, they should do it right. There's no reason for this." The den—the film room—is papered in peach, aqua and white, like a Dolphin uniform. It's as crisp and neat as a Duper curl pattern.
"What other way," Duper says later, when asked about his quantum leap to the NFL, "could I make a whole lot of money, live comfortably and retire at a good age? Being a football player is a good job." He pauses. "I guess if I can help out my family, that's a big part, too. I do things for them...it just makes me feel good." As Duper speaks, his sliding glass doors are open to greater Miami, his for the taking, all modern and sunny and warm.