Dupree as a Sooner: A Glimpse of What Might Have Been
by: Scott LaPeer
*Editor's note: After covering sports in Mississippi for 3 years, I looked forward to watching ESPN's original 30 for 30 presentation on Mississippi native Marcus Dupree, "The Best That Never Was". This is a commentary response to Dupree's story, intended to shed further perspective from a similar vantage point.
"The Best That Never Was" is a story as aptly titled as the subject of the film was talented.
Marcus Dupree, a prep phenom, man-amongst-boys who rose from the obscure, pine tree-ed woods of Philadelphia, Mississippi seemed both an immovable object and unstoppable force, barreling completely unimpeded toward football super stardom. Instead, tragically, his unparalleled promise flickered and fizzled, until finally it was to be largely fumbled away.
The tale of Marcus Dupree is 1 part twist-of-fate, 3 parts cautionary. While Dupree was such an exceptional, once-in-a-generation talent he literally changed the way folks looked at the game of football (note: when watching the link, listen to the coaches' commentary as they struggle to contain their amazement), his fate -- to lesser degrees, of course -- is one not uncommon to multitudes of gifted young men growing up in Mississippi.
Of all America's states, Mississippi has the highest proportion of African-Americans among its entire population-- nearly 38-percent. In no way limited to, but certainly predominant amid this populous is a major problem; a plague-- the substantial number of single mothers raising young men in tiny, poor, rural towns and communities just like Philadelphia.
Laurel. Batesville. Indianola. Tylertown. Meadville. Bassfield... You get the point.
Still, by all impressions neither trouble maker nor truant, it fast appeared one simple, yet foundational element was absent in Marcus' life: A father. Well mannered and largely family-first, after a high school career that set a new, national record for touchdowns scored, the young Dupree was obviously and painfully ill-equipped to deal with the big-time college coaches who came a-courtin' in waves.
Fast forward, and after committing/de-committing from Texas, Dupree put to rest a rabid recruiting period (every major college football program in America sought his talents, prompting the writing of a book by author Willie Morris titled The Courting of Marcus Dupree), finally selecting the University of Oklahoma. However, Dupree's experience in Norman was unsettling from the start, struggling to adjust under perhaps the first authoritative male figure in his young life, Sooner head coach Barry Switzer.
Switzer was tough and un-coddling. Marcus was confused, frustrated, and disillusioned. After a stellar freshman year in 1982 that left Dupree a Heisman front-runner entering his sophomore campaign, he mysteriously disappeared from Oklahoma 5 games into his second season, never to run wild in maroon and white again.
Bad company and advice soon followed.
After enrolling at Southern Miss, Dupree's attempt to gain instant eligibility was rejected. Not long after, he signed a lucrative deal with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers-- a 5-year, 5-million dollar contract; a high volume of green for an equally green 20-year old.
But the one figure in Marcus' life who appeared of fatherly influence was soon exposed a fraud. The Reverend Ken Fairley, a Hattiesburg, Mississippi pastor who deliberately connected with the young phenom while still a high school star, handled Dupree's finances, posing as an agent of sorts, while establishing himself power of attorney over all of Dupree's dealings. When the now-pro running back received his first professional paycheck, a tender of $45,000, Fairley quickly tracked him down and assumed possession of it. It was the last paycheck he ever saw from the Breakers.
Dupree told 30 for 30 filmmaker Jonathan Hock, "The checks weren't coming to me, they were going into a bank account, and every time, basically, when I needed X amount of dollars, I would tell Ken to wire it to me to my account in New Orleans. And that's how, I basically never saw a New Orleans Breakers check. I trusted Ken to take care of business as a friend, or an adviser, or whatever, but I do remember one day my mom asked me to send her something to take care of something, and I said, 'ok, well let me call Ken'. She said, 'ok, well why do you gotta call Ken?'... And, you know, that never did really stick until later."
In the opening game of his second USFL season, the all-at-once rugged and swift running back blew out his left knee sending his seemingly fortunate turn-around to a screeching halt. Having earned a mere, estimated $300,000 of his income, when Dupree went to access his money, hardly a fraction of that figure was there. Fairley had secretly siphoned that income, a practice he would repeatedly exploit later in other dirty dealings, taking full advantage of a young man at the height of his, and his family's naivete, for his own slimy and selfish and gain.
To this day a senior pastor at Mount Carmel Ministries in Hattiesburg, Fairley is a despicable and deceitful creature whose shady and misleading deeds extend well beyond the financial crumbling of Marcus Dupree. This much is validated by multiple inside sources, but the details of such are neither of pertinence to Dupree's story, nor in good taste of Fairley's victims.
The prevailing theme of "The Best That Never Was" is an overwhelming sense of what might have been.
What if Marcus Dupree had returned to Oklahoma and finished his college career?
What if Dupree had sought credible representation to deal with his professional earnings?
What if he had stayed healthy?
What if the player once described as Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Herschel Walker all rolled into one had gained the maturity and discipline so many of us take for granted through the daily example of a strong and reliable father-figure in his life?
Chances are, if just one of those "what if's" goes differently, Marcus Dupree wouldn't be earning an honest -- albeit meager -- living as a part-time truck driver today.
The tale of Marcus Dupree, the incomparably gifted phenom seemingly destined for other-worldly accomplishment is, indeed, a cautionary one. By no fault of his own did Dupree struggle to become a man bereft of the genuine presence of another. The true problem lies with all those who have been, and are still yet to come, absent from making a difference on the millions of young boys with the talents to make something extraordinary of their lives.
Marcus Dupree became "The Best That Never Was" because he, at least, got a small opportunity to showcase his greatness. The sad truth is, there are a thousand more "Bests That Never Were" who will simply never be known.