MARCUS DUPREE

The best high school running back ever became a college bust and a pro washout, then spent two decades wandering from job to job and place to place. So how did he become a happy rancher and energy entrepreneur?
July 07, 2014

THERE USED to be a University of Oklahoma flag out front, near the gate at the end of the gravel driveway, but it's gone missing, stolen. Marcus Dupree suspects LSU fans, but he laughs it off because who knows, back in Norman he might have done the same to their purple-and-gold.

The Sooners red-and-white had been the best way to identify Dupree's property, nestled among pine trees behind a winding state road in southeast Louisiana. There's a trailer back there, and a big ol' barn, and fields dotted with horses. An Australian shepherd prowls one fence, barking at each mare and stallion as if it were the first he'd ever seen.

To find the best high school running back in the history of high school running backs requires detailed directions. It takes a trip over Lake Pontchartrain and past the fast-food joints and car dealerships of the North Shore, the nondescript sprawl of suburban New Orleans. Soon the road arches over the Bogue Falaya River—or the Tchefuncte, depending on whom you ask. Popeye's and Wal-Marts give way to motorcycle shops and sno-ball stands. Out here it might be 2014 or 1980, and no one seems to care to know the difference.

Past the golf-cart store, past the gas stations, hang a left at the malt shop. Keep going, past the trailers interspersed with plantations. On one side of the road you'll see a double-wide doing a bustling upholstery business, and on the other a mansion set 50 yards back, on a plot of land so grand it warrants a name.

Dupree isn't hiding. He's just living, he says, like he's never lived before. These country roads are home to every kind of character, from trust-fund babies holed up on plantations to real estate agents who breed miniature cows to restaurateurs running dry-cleaning businesses out back. Dupree's is just one story out of a hundred, if better known than those of the lady whose Clydesdale stars in TV commercials or the woman frying chicken at the Shell Station. Out here he's just Marcus Dupree, the former football star and current horse farmer, and would he like another serving of crawfish?

Of course he would. When he's hungry, he can put away eight pounds, easy.

FOUR YEARS ago Dupree was living in Gulfport, Miss., working part time as a truck driver, when filmmaker Jonathan Hock tracked him down for ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary The Best That Never Was. Dupree's name was hardly in the conversation about college football greats, and those who remembered his glory days at Philadelphia (Miss.) High—where he rushed for 5,283 yards and set a national record for career touchdowns with 87—were passing into middle age and beyond. Even so, Hock, 50, had long been fascinated by Dupree. Few had heard from the running back since his 1992 retirement from the NFL, and Hock managed to locate him only with the help of a private investigator.

The Marcus Dupree that Hock found was one of those husky men in whom the silhouette of a former athlete can still be seen. "My grandma told me I'd wake up and there would be mornings like this," Dupree says of his creaking joints, already brittle at 50. He was puffed-up, rudderless, his money frittered away.

Dupree's football days are known more for their endings than their beginnings. For two seasons he was a college star at Oklahoma, running for a Fiesta Bowl--record 239 yards as a freshman on Jan. 1, 1983. But after a disappointing, injury-riddled sophomore season, he mysteriously departed the Sooners' program. He transferred to Southern Mississippi but left without playing a game, bolting for the USFL (and a five-year, $6 million contract) in the spring of '84. In his first season in the renegade league he rushed for 684 yards and nine TDs for the New Orleans Breakers. One game into his second season he blew out his knee. Suddenly he was out of football—before his 21st birthday.

Five years later, after gaining 80 pounds and then losing 100 working out in his mom's garage, Dupree came out of retirement and in 1990 made it to the NFL, where he played sparingly for the Rams. After the '92 training camp he was cut as the team installed a pass-first offense, and he was out of the game for good.

Dupree then began nearly two decades of wandering. He did a stint as a professional wrestler in Memphis, and in the years that followed he drifted from one job to another: He scouted for the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos; worked as GM of an Arena Football team in Bossier City, La.; served as a greeter at a casino in Tunica, Miss.; and performed cleanup on the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. A shadow of the Marcus Dupree whose photo appeared on the cover of this magazine in 1983, he wasn't ducking the media; the spotlight had simply disappeared.

When Hock came a-calling more than 15 years after Dupree's retirement, Dupree was open to doing the film, which helped get his life back on track. The project's lasting effect has been the perspective it added to Dupree's departure from Oklahoma, which had made him public enemy No. 1 in Norman. Instead of painting Dupree as an entitled, lazy teenager burdened by people's expectations, Hock detailed the real reasons for his exit: a catastrophic mixture of bad advice and bad decisions. The film introduced a Southern Miss booster, Ken Fairley, who became Dupree's adviser and, capitalizing on the player's poor relationship with Sooners coach Barry Switzer, persuaded him to leave Oklahoma. But the words in the film that stuck most were those of Switzer himself, who said his biggest coaching regret was his excessively tough approach to the young running back. As Dupree was pulled from obscurity once again, Sooners Nation welcomed the former star back into its good graces.

After years of bouncing from job to job, Dupree has found a measure of stability since the film premiered. His repaired relationship with the Oklahoma community meant renewed friendships and an entrée into the oil and gas industry. Dupree now makes most of his income from Dupree Solutions, the company he started in 2012 to patent and sell silica reduction filters, which reduce airborne silica dust kicked up by fracking and protect drillers from silicosis, an incurable respiratory disease. Dupree's new Oklahoma friends, already making upward of seven figures in their own oil and gas ventures, gave him valuable business contacts and advice, and he threw himself headfirst into learning about the industry. His agent's daughter, Mary Kay Holmes, also lent her expertise from years of working in finance, and she still keeps the business's books.

By this spring Dupree had put away about $750,000, which he intends to spend on a larger property in Louisiana. Meanwhile he lives on 15 acres near the towns of Covington, Folsom and Abita Springs. He's not making seven figures, but his company's ventures have left him more than comfortable.

Dupree has also been able to realize a dream he's had since elementary school, when many of his friends were the proud owners of Shetland ponies. Dupree coveted one, but his mother always said no. "I can't feed you and a horse, too," Cella Dupree Connors, a high school English teacher, would tell her son. "I said, I'm going to make me some money, and I'm buying my own horses," Dupree recalls, "and they're all going to be spotted."

He bought his first horse—China, he called her—in 1984, when he signed with the Breakers. But then the franchise moved to Portland, and Dupree sold China to a woman in Ohio. His dream was put on hold again until 2010. That's when he found this land on the Louisiana back roads, which he had come to love when he was playing in New Orleans, and snatched it up. He bought a horse named Annalisa shortly thereafter. She was, of course, spotted.

SINCE THEN Dupree has added a dozen horses, whose price tags start at about $3,500. There's Katmandu (Katmandupree, officially), a stallion who came from Tennessee at just four months old. There's Cash, a show horse, and Cannon Destiny, the most distinctive-looking of the group, a Rocky Mountain with a coat the color of nutmeg and an ivory mane. Out in the fields three broodmares graze: Celine Neon, Masquerading Solitaire and Raven. Raven's daughter, Pepper, is alone in a pasture nearby. Dupree is still training her, still teaching her to stand still, as evidenced by her choppy mane; she wouldn't stop wiggling long enough for him to cut it right. In another field lumbers Big Momma, who in late April is 10 months into her 11-month pregnancy. Put a hand against her belly and you feel the baby kick. Next to Big Momma stands Phantom, a blue-eyed beauty smart enough to open gates with his mouth.

Lately Dupree has been taking the horses to shows. Cannon Destiny attended his first in April and won, with Dupree's longtime girlfriend, Kim Funchess, atop. The two make a striking pair, the spotted Cannon Destiny with the smoothest of gaits, Funchess with her model-tall figure and cowboy hat. Cannon Destiny is going to be a winner, Dupree is sure of it.

Dupree's property also boasts two dogs—Deuce, a six-month-old Siberian husky, and Louie, the Australian shepherd—and no shortage of activity. Funchess comes and goes between stints as a flight attendant for American Airlines, and Slayden King, a horseman who helps out around the barn, is often there. Dupree's new Oklahoma friends visit for holidays, and his five grade-school-age grandchildren—his son Landon, 29, has two boys, and his other son Marquez, 31, has a boy and two girls—travel down from Philadelphia, Miss. Now that they've seen those grainy tapes of PawPaw playing football, the boys are a bit in awe. They have their little pads and helmets. "They're playing running back," he says, but "I want them all to play baseball. Longevity."

This is the family Dupree has built, however late in life. Though football is a shadow that hangs over it all, it is decidedly in the past, finally a happy memory. On an afternoon in April, Dupree sat on his patio with Holmes. "Football, [Marcus] didn't go crazy when it was over," she said. Dupree interrupted: "My mom always said, 'Don't let football be an obstacle that gets in your way.' "

TO SPEND time with Dupree in his barn is to see a man at ease in his world. When he goes past each stall, its resident walks up to nuzzle his hulking 6'3", 260-pound frame, 40 pounds heavier than his playing weight. Dupree coos, tells Annalisa not to be jealous when he brings Katmandu out. He chuckles watching Phantom wander the property as if he owns it, and he wants everyone to ride Big Momma to get that darn baby out sooner.

And when he speaks about oil and gas, it's with the exuberance of a man who's found a career that is his passion. He talks about filtration and fracking and the patent he's awaiting on his filter. Turning back to his property, he talks like an expert about which fertilizers to put in his grass to make it more nutritious.

It's as if he's lived here for four decades, not four years. Walking down the streets of nearby towns, Dupree shakes hands and waves as if he's the mayor. At Scoops restaurant in Folsom, owner Bill Ingram emerges in rain boots and Hawaiian-print shorts (he's been boiling crawfish) because he has to say howdy to Dupree. Ingram is using his friendship with the stars of History Channel's Swamp People to get his most famous patron on the show. (Dupree would like to catch a gator and make a pair of boots from its hide.)

Then there are Mary and Deborah at the Shell station. "Mahcus! Mahcus!" they holler in the convenience store behind the pumps, where there's fried everything and a line of people 10 deep at lunchtime. Mary and Deborah fawn over Dupree because they love him—and he's the closest thing to a local celebrity. His move to Louisiana coincided with the release of Hock's film, making Dupree, well, kind of a big deal. His photo adorns a wall of Ingram's restaurant, and around here it's as if his 25 years of obscurity never happened.

THE RIBBONS tacked to a post in the barn are all blue and red, first and second place, none for third. Dupree likes to win. He shows his horses with the competitive spirit he never fully expended on football, and his dreams for them get bigger by the hour. Win a show. Win a national championship. Get into dressage. Maybe racing too. A friend up in Oklahoma just bought a racehorse for $12,000, and it's already won him more than $100,000. Wild, isn't it?

Dupree is piloting his Range Rover and talking a mile a minute. He's discussing a property in Folsom, and the closer he gets to its front gate, the more excited he becomes. The place is on the market, a cool $1.45 million for 100 acres. A woman with a trust fund bigger than bejesus and a pair of pet wolves has put it up for sale, and he's going to pay cash, just as soon as he has it.

The property looks like a location from Gone with the Wind. There are fields upon fields and ponds upon ponds, and the guest quarters alone look sufficient to house a small family. Geese mosey along in pairs, and a heron pokes its way around the water nearest the gate. Dupree is talking about expanding to 15 or 20 horses. He's talking trail rides—a huge moneymaker out here, he says—and a football camp.

"There's like six acres over there where I can put tons of trails," he says, pointing right, toward a giant thicket, "and I could put a bandstand over there," pointing left, "and cabins for people to come and stay," gesturing to an open field. "Nobody fishes out here, so there's plenty of fish for the grandkids. We could have a fishing rodeo."

Then he pauses, and the voice coming out of this big man is not unlike that of a little boy who's just been given his coveted pony. "It's awesome," he says. He smiles, pulls out his cellphone and starts taking videos, as if the buildings are springing up in his imagination.

On the drive home Dupree cruises past a Shetland pony. He's singing along to the R&B pumping through his speakers, and he doesn't even notice the horse he once so coveted. It's easy to overlook what you're missing when the rest of your life looks like this.

PHOTOPhotograph by ROBERT SEALE For Sports IllustratedRANCH DRESSING Dupree isn't just all hat on his Louisiana spread. He's a budding expert on everything from show horses to grass fertilizer. PHOTOROBERT SEALE FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSHORT HONEYMOON Dupree was an Oklahoma hero and SI cover subject his freshman year in Norman, but soon he was the man Sooners fans loved to hate. PHOTOANDY HAYT/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED[See caption above] PHOTODAVID BOSS/NFL PHOTOS/APFROM GOAT TO RAM After a five-year break, Dupree took his last shot at pro ball, in Los Angeles, but then the team turned away from the running game.

INSTEAD OF PAINTING DUPREE AS AN ENTITLED, LAZY TEENAGER, HOCK'S FILM DETAILED THE REAL REASONS HE LEFT THE SOONERS.

5,283 CAREER RUSHING YARDS, 87 RUSHING TOUCHDOWNS IN HIGH SCHOOL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)