"The Best That Never Was" debuts tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
If you were a football fan in the early ‘80s, you probably remember the name Marcus Dupree. In an era of power running backs like Earl Campbell and Herschel Walker, Dupree looked bound to outpace everyone who came before him. He was so heavily recruited out of his Mississippi high school that a bestselling book was written about the process. During his freshman year at OU he bowled over defenses with his 6’2”, 235-pound frame, then broke off long runs with his speed, prompting talk that he could win the Heisman as a sophomore. But poor conditioning and injuries rendered Dupree ineffective at the start of his second year of college, and halfway through the season he quit, saying that he was transferring to Southern Mississippi. Then, before he could play a down at USM, Dupree signed with the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL, setting a record for the biggest contract ever awarded to a 19-year-old in pro football. But injuries caught up with Dupree yet again, and he spent the next decade drifting in and out the game, making short-lived comebacks but never living up to his potential.
Jonathan Hock’s 30 For 30 episode about Dupree, “The Best That Never Was,” isn’t the best of the series, but it’s easily the best episode of the past couple of months. The double-sized length of “The Best That Never Was” is both a help and a hindrance to Hock: He doesn’t have quite enough story to sustain two hours of TV time, but the extra time does give him the space to develop some fully formed thoughts on Dupree’s career and what it means. If only Hock could’ve resisted the temptation to fill seemingly every spare second of the soundtrack with plaintive, melancholy acoustic guitar, this episode would’ve been top-shelf.
As it is, “The Best That Never Was” is plenty remarkable, both for its awe-inspiring footage of vintage Dupree and for the way Hock works what could’ve been a complete downer of a bio-doc into something that’s not uplifting in a phony way, but instead puts one man’s abortive career into a broader, mitigating perspective.
For one, Hock frames Dupree’s story against the place where he grew up: Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the 1964 murder of civil rights workers that was later fictionalized in the film Mississippi Burning. Dupree was a member of one of the first integrated classes at Philadelphia High and played alongside the son of Cecil Price, the deputy convicted of violating the civil rights of the three murdered men. Dupree’s games were cheered on by mixed-race crowds, which was in itself a remarkable step forward for Philadelphia. Later, when his career ended, Dupree asked Price to help him get his commercial driving license so he could get a job as a truck driver, and Price didn’t hesitate to lend a hand. By no means does this make up for the sins of the past, but it’s something.
And ultimately, “The Best That Never Was” is about making do with something when you can’t have everything. Hock also frames Dupree’s story against the subject of money, and whether Dupree saw enough of it during his too-brief career. He had a contract worth millions from the USFL, and even before that, during the recruiting frenzy of his senior year of high school, Dupree didn’t lack for girls, clothes, food, a double-wide trailer for his mom, a special visit from NFL star Billy Sims … anything. But at the same time, people were making money off of Dupree in high school by selling his torn jerseys, and OU sold piles of Dupree memorabilia during his freshman year. Plus, his career options were limited by the NFL’s policy of not drafting sophomores or juniors, coupled with the NCAA’s policy of forcing transfer students to sit out a season. And once Dupree joined the USFL, the “family friend” who handled his finances sent him whatever money he needed and essentially kept the rest for himself, such that when Dupree washed out, he was left nearly penniless.
The doc also raises the question of whether Dupree’s failure to live up to the hype is the fault of Dupree or the hype itself. The video of Dupree from high school is simply stunning, as he runs back kickoffs for touchdowns, looking as one friend says “like Jim Brown” plopped down into the middle of a high school football game. But he was so good that his college coaches couldn’t really teach him anything, so they settled for trying to break his spirit a little, criticizing him publicly and privately for not being even better. After Dupree set a Fiesta Bowl record with 245 rushing yards—gained in only 34 out of the team’s 69 offensive plays—Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer complained to the press that Dupree had put on too much weight over the holidays, and that he should’ve played more downs. Meanwhile, agents were whispering in Dupree’s ear that he wasn’t getting his due, and reporters were eliciting quotes from him about how unsatisfied he was. It all led to a situation where Dupree was trying too hard to prove himself, even as his body was failing him. Ultimately, he needed fewer people feeding his ego and fewer people trying to tear it down and more practical-minded coaches with common-sense training plans.
What makes this story both sad and yet not-so-bad-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things is that Dupree seems like a good guy, at least as presented by Hock. A bit headstrong as a kid? Sure, but no worse than so many other hotshots with more talent than grounding. It’s bittersweet to see him looking through his souvenirs from OU and realizing that if he’d stayed, he might’ve been part of their championship season or to see him watching video of himself in high school and chuckling, “Who is this kid?” On the one hand, time and distance make the hubbub and mistakes of the past seem less urgent and more like something that happened to somebody else. On the other hand, when Hock and Dupree talk about how his mother and brother were his biggest fans, Dupree breaks down, saying that he always thinks about whether he did enough to make them proud.
It’s tough, you know? So, so good, yet never good enough.
- “It’s a good contract. I know what’s in it.” Not the most reassuring words from Dupree’s first USFL press conference.
- Dupree appeared on the cover of SPORT magazine. I miss SPORT.
- I can’t imagine the pressure on these high school stars to pick a school. It’s heartbreaking to hear that Dupree was telling his friends and family that he’d made a mistake choosing OU before he even showed up on campus. It’s the worst kind of buyer’s remorse: Because of the way the system is rigged, there's not much a kid can do about it once he makes that choice.
- A telling quote from Dupree’s uncle, who presumes to assess his nephew’s character when he’s probably talking about himself: “Give him a kick on the ass and he’ll quit on you.”
- I wish I could find the novelty single about Dupree on YouTube, but alas, no. We’ll just have to settle for a highlight reel:
- Even though Dupree is friendly with the Cecil Price family, he still gave money to his church to help erect a monument to the slain civil rights workers. Such is the duality of the southern thing.