Imagine you’re a high school football coach.
On the first day of practice, a freshman shows up who is built like a starting middle linebacker.
Even better, that same freshman has speed to burn and agility to spare.
For the coaching staff at Philadelphia, Mississippi High School in the late 1970s, such a player materialized.
Marcus Dupree’s legend actually arrived before he did.
First thought hearing LA is getting the #Rams back, Marcus Dupree available? pic.twitter.com/FCUIYzP5ar
— Brendan Dunlop (@Brendan_Dunlop) January 13, 2016
By the time he was a freshman, the locals in Philadelphia were well aware of Dupree’s talents.
He was a freak of nature, a man among boys who looked like he was a college player even in high school.
Not long into his prep career, Dupree’s talent was undeniable.
Opponents seeing him for the first time were in awe of his size and fearful of his collisions.
In four years, Dupree would become one of the best high school running backs in history.
Even before entering college, a pro career looked certain.
Dupree was on his way to stardom when he was derailed due to bad advice and injuries.
He would eventually make it to the NFL, but his career would not meet the lofty expectations of his youth.
This is the heartbreaking story of Marcus Dupree.
Growing Up in Philadelphia, Mississippi
Marcus L. Dupree was born on May 22, 1964 in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Dupree’s birth that year coincided with one of the darkest events in Civil Rights (and certainly Philadelphia’s) history.
A month after Dupree was born, Civil Rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were driving to Meridian, Mississippi and the headquarters of the Council of Federated Organizations, an organization that assisted in helping black people register to vote.
OTD 1964, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers investigating a church arson, were shot and killed. Their bodies were buried under an earthen dam and were not discovered for 44 days after their death. pic.twitter.com/CVI7Bq1vWy
— RED CARPET (@TXHRINFO) June 21, 2018
On their way to Meridian, the vehicle the trio were travelling in encountered a flat tire after entering Philadelphia city limits.
Sheriff Cecil Ray Price stopped the vehicle and radioed for backup.
The three were then arrested for driving too fast and were held for investigation.
They later left the police station in Philadelphia and seemed to fall off the face of the earth.
Two months later, and after an extensive search by the FBI and other organizations, their bodies were found shot to death and buried.
A number of people, including Sheriff Price, were later found guilty of violating the civil rights of the three men.
Deputy Cecil Price and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey, 1964. Photo by Paul Reed. pic.twitter.com/QlGYmYQ8fO
— Micheal McLaughlin (@micheal_mcl) November 19, 2021
The state of Mississippi refused to try Price and his co-conspirators (which included members of the Ku Klux Klan) on murder charges.
Price served four years in jail before returning to Philadelphia.
The national opinion of Philadelphia before and after the murders was less than positive.
Having seen the worst of people during the Civil Rights era, even Reverend Martin Luther King had a blunt opinion of Philadelphia.
“This is a terrible town, the worst I’ve ever seen,” King said.
Meanwhile, Dupree grew up in the aftermath of the incident.
As he matriculated through elementary school, many of the same people that had been on the wrong side of the law (including Price) during the murder investigation began to take a shine to Dupree (who is black).
Even stranger, Price’s son, Cecil Jr., became a friend of Dupree’s.
Young Marcus did his best to navigate through the complexities of his home town by playing sports.
His ability was evident early and the townsfolk could plainly see that Dupree had talent for miles.
By the time he was in 6th grade, the superintendent of schools called Dupree into his office just to meet the young man.
In middle school, Dupree was dunking basketballs with ease.
Then came his entry into high school.
As a freshman, Dupree played wide receiver, kick and punt returner.
On his very first play as a high schooler, Dupree took the opening kickoff and returned it 75 yards for a score.
He would collect five more touchdowns that season as a receiver along with six more as a returner.
Dupree was switched to running back before his sophomore season and found his calling.
By then, he was well on his way to filling out his eventual 6’3” 230-pound frame.
He used his mass to crush opponents that year to the tune of 1,850 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns.
In Dupree’s junior year, college coaches began showing interest after he posted 2,550 rushing yards and 34 combined touchdowns.
As his senior season began, every big name coach across the country sought time with Dupree.
Every game he played in was packed with spectators and people clamoring just to see him.
I was a Graduate Student at Ole Miss, and a friend asked me to ride with him down to Philadelphia, MS to watch a Player named Marcus Dupree play that night. It was like watching Earl Campbell play against kids. The #1 ranked HS player in America at that time. Never forget it. pic.twitter.com/CY8dfc8Gt3
— Rob Oviatt (@RobOviatt1) September 28, 2020
Additionally, the people of Philadelphia had gotten used to a newcomer in town.
Author Willie Morris had arrived before Dupree’s senior year to chronicle the spectacle that was Marcus Dupree.
Morris’ book, The Courting of Marcus Dupree, would become one of the most widely read sports books in the last 50 years.
When the final game of the 1981 season arrived, Dupree was five touchdowns away from Hershel Walker’s all-time high school touchdown record.
As impossible as the feat seemed to be, Dupree passed Walker’s record that day.
His senior year totals included 2,955 rushing yards and 36 scores.
“Every time I put my hand on the ball, I wanted to score a touchdown,” Dupree said in 2010.
Dupree’s totals as a high school athlete were 7,355 rushing yards (an 8.3 yards per carry average) and 87 touchdowns.
He broke Walker’s scoring record by one touchdown.
Marcus Dupree grew up in the small town of Philadelphia, (Miss.) with a population under 7,500 people.
In 1981, he broke Herschel Walker’s national HS 🏈 record for career TDs with 87. He also had a .481 batting average.
He was arguably the greatest HS 🏈prospect of all-time. pic.twitter.com/Y9AY4bBVy8
— MaxPreps (@MaxPreps) March 21, 2020
Not only was Dupree a star on the gridiron, but he was equally talented as a baseball, basketball and track athlete.
Long after his prep career ended, Dupree surprisingly claimed that his best sport was basketball.
However, basketball wasn’t the sport college coaches recruited him for.
Dupree’s college choice would soon become the biggest topic of debate not only in Mississippi, but the country.
Switzer Woos Dupree
As the calendar turned to 1982, major college recruiters from all over the country descended on Philadelphia.
The locals wanted Dupree to attend Mississippi State.
LSU, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Southern Miss, UCLA, Pittsburgh and Oklahoma all made fevered pitches to Dupree and his family.
“My mom, brother and friends were excited. It was a chance to move up to the next level,” Dupree said. “Everybody was really excited about it, no matter where I chose to go.”
Joe Wood, Dupree’s high school coach, was stuck in the middle of the recruiting war, fielding upwards of 100 calls each day.
Sooners assistant coach Lucious Slemon planted himself at a nearby hotel for six weeks in an effort to sway Dupree.
At one point, UCLA held a spot in the running back’s heart.
However, that passed when Dupree realized just how far California was from Philadelphia.
Finally, coach Fred Akers and the Texas Longhorns appeared to win the recruiting battle when Dupree verbally committed to the school.
That didn’t stop Barry Switzer, the head coach at Oklahoma.
In an effort to sway Dupree, Switzer sent former Sooner (and Heisman Trophy winner) Billy Sims to Philadelphia to implore the youngster to attend OU.
The more Switzer pressed, the more Dupree liked him.
“Coach Switzer had swagger like no other coach had,” Dupree said. “And that’s what I liked about him.”
Finally, on February 12, 1982, Dupree went back on his word to Texas and announced he would become a Sooner.
Feb. 13, 1982, in @TheOklahoman — Heralded high school RB Marcus Dupree signs with the Sooners. The next day, Barry Switzer suggests he might want to drop a few lbs. https://t.co/AqTqbl8cTc pic.twitter.com/ETRCMOooC0
— Don Mecoy (@Mecoy) February 13, 2018
He later quipped that, had he stayed in Mississippi to play college ball, “I wouldn’t have been on the cover of Sports Illustrated . . . The world would still know about me, but not that much.”
Dupree Busts Loose
Not long after arriving in Norman, Oklahoma, Switzer watched his prize recruit and couldn’t contain his glee.
“He (Dupree) was the best player on the field. Earl Campbell was the only other guy I ever saw who was like that—physically ready, as a true freshman, to be the best player on a great college team. Maybe even ready for the NFL at that age,” said Switzer at the time.
Dupree’s opinion of Oklahoma, however, was a little concerning.
“Now that I’m here (in Oklahoma) it’s all right,” Dupree says, “but a little worse than I thought it would be.”
During the first few weeks of the 1982 college season, Dupree rarely saw the field.
Marcus Dupree of Oklahoma leaves the tunnel. pic.twitter.com/yzQBYhJJS1
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) June 25, 2016
When he did finally see playing time, he struggled.
After three games, Dupree’s stats were 12 carries for 20 yards.
At that point, Switzer decided to abandon his favored Wishbone offense and switched to the I formation.
The idea was to get the ball into Dupree’s hands early and often.
Dupree scored his first college touchdown on a 63 yard fake reverse against Texas.
The following week against Kansas, the nation watched as the youngster from Oklahoma rumbled for 158 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run.
He would be named Big Eight Offensive Player of the Week.
Dupree kept the party going in games against other conference foes. He would produce highlight reel runs against the likes of Colorado, Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska.
At the end of 1982, Dupree was one of the most exciting players in college football.
He started only seven games during the season yet still rushed for 1,144 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Dupree was named a Second-team All-American, First-team All-Big Eight Conference and Big Eight Newcomer of the Year.
In the Sooners’ 1983 Fiesta Bowl loss against Arizona State, Dupree wowed the nation after running for 249 yards on only 17 carries.
Happy bday to former @OU_Football RB Marcus Dupree. All-American as FR & ran for @FiestaBowl record 249 yds on 1/1/83 pic.twitter.com/ep4OrHriLP
— CFB Legends (@CFBLegends) May 22, 2014
His rushing total that day is a Fiesta Bowl record.
Despite his performance, Dupree was in and out of the game several times.
In the weeks after the Sooners’ last regular-season game and the Fiesta Bowl, Dupree had let himself go and reported to the team 15 pounds overweight.
He ended up leaving the game in the second quarter due to a hamstring injury, yet was still named MVP.
Switzer was unhappy with his freshman back and chastised him after the Sun Devil loss.
“If you’d have been in shape, you’d have rushed for 400 yards, and we’d have won the game.”
Trouble in Norman
Dupree’s weight gain was just the first sign that he was unhappy.
The next indication was a clear message intended for the entire country to read.
In June of 1983, just before the start of Dupree’s sophomore year, Sports Illustrated published a story detailing his journey to Norman as well as his experiences in college.
Follow that legend Marcus Dupree, the greatest RB from Philadelphia, Mississippi and one of the best ever at OU! pic.twitter.com/OB9DcfzOp4
— Kris Williams (@kriswill123) May 1, 2018
By the end of the article, it was obvious that Dupree was unhappy at Oklahoma and with Switzer.
“I had the impression before I went to Oklahoma from just watching Coach Switzer on TV,” says Dupree, sitting on his front porch, “that he’s a hard guy and that he treats his players hard. That turns out to be true. I think I’ll play this year, but it could be my last. Coach Switzer says I don’t practice that well. The problem is, it’s not like high school when Coach [Joe] Wood made it fun. At Oklahoma, it’s not fun. I don’t know….”
Switzer wasn’t exactly shy about his take on Dupree.
“Dupree is lazy and he’s not mentally tough,” Switzer has been grousing of late to friends. “It has all come too easy for him. We have a team that can be pretty good this year, but right now, because of Dupree, the vibrations aren’t very good.”
The article also detailed how Switzer and the coaching staff were upset about Dupree’s lack of conditioning.
By spring practice a few months earlier, their star back had still not recovered from his hamstring injury suffered during the Fiesta Bowl game.
Switzer was direct in his assessment of Dupree returning for his second year.
“If he isn’t ready to play, I promise you I’ll sit him down. Besides, he can’t do anything unless his teammates help, and it’s still a team game, don’t forget,” said Switzer.
What really alarmed the Sooner faithful was the frequent mention of Dupree leaving the school.
“I don’t really like school,” Dupree says. “College isn’t for everybody, and I guess it’s just not for me. All I want is to try to make life simple, mind my own business and try to make things fun.”
After arriving on campus late to begin fall practice, Dupree had a rough start to begin the 1983 season.
#TBThursday August, 1983. OU Running Backs Marcus Dupree, Earl Johnson & Spencer Tillman get some conditioning in on the track prior to the 1983 football season.@MPSallusti73 @Soonerorthodds @MolohaMonte @JWarwickINS @SpeedbyDupree @EarlJoh26055677 @SpenceTillman @Barry_Switzer pic.twitter.com/9p1ezthM0Y
— Chris Lambakis (@chris_lambakis) June 3, 2021
By late September, the narrative of Dupree leaving Oklahoma was still prevalent, as was a possible jump to the United States Football League.
Even Switzer was aware that his back could potentially leave school early and join the USFL, which had different underclassmen eligibility rules than the NFL.
“If they (the USFL) offer Marcus four or five million dollars,” Switzer says, “I’ll tell him to take the money and run.”
Five games into the season, Dupree had rushed the ball 63 times for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
His immense talent appeared in spurts, then disappeared at key moments.
Then, after sustaining a concussion against the Texas Longhorns, Dupree disappeared altogether.
For the better part of a week, no one could find him.
Sooners coaches couldn’t contact Dupree and fellow players and friends had no idea where he was.
“It was a sensational story in the history of sports. The best player in the country vanished,” Jonathan Hock, director of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Marcus Dupree, “The Best That Never Was,” said.
Finally, Dupree appeared back home in Philadelphia.
He announced to the media that he was leaving Oklahoma and would be transferring to the University of Southern Mississippi.
In less than two years in Norman, Dupree had rushed for 1,513 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Dupree Signs with the USFL
There was a problem with Dupree’s decision to switch schools.
NCAA transfer rules at the time stated that he would have to sit out the remainder of the 1983 season as well as the 1984 season.
That meant Dupree would not compete on the gridiron again until 1985.
Discouraged by the lack of opportunity to showcase his talent, Dupree dropped out of Southern Miss in early 1984.
”Marcus has had difficulty coping with the fact he cannot play college football until 1985 and has talked of the possibility of playing professional football,” Jim Carmody, Southern Mississippi’s head coach, said yesterday. ”He is not sure of his plans at this time, but it is obvious he will not be playing football at U.S.M.”
A family friend, Kenneth Fairly (who would become Dupree’s agent), further commented that Dupree was “…considering many possibilities, including looking into the N.C.A.A. ruling from a possible legal standpoint.”
Dupree’s situation opened the door for the USFL.
After its founding, the league’s position was not to sign college underclassmen.
The league then allowed Hershel Walker to become draft eligible in 1983.
Walker had just finished his third year at Georgia and he was selected by the New Jersey Generals.
After an uproar by college coaches and pushback from the NFL, the USFL announced they would no longer accept underclassmen.
However, federal judge Laughlin E. Waters ruled that the eligibility issue actually violated antitrust law.
Suddenly, there was a mad rush on a young man from Mississippi.
The New Orleans Breakers convinced New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump to give up his territorial rights to Dupree.
Since Trump already had Walker from the previous year, he agreed to the deal in exchange for a 1985 first-round pick from the Breakers.
Marcus Dupree, shortly after signing with the USFL's New Orleans Breakers pic.twitter.com/TcNjWs1bu9
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) November 26, 2018
It turned out that Coach Switzer was somewhat prophetic.
The Breakers signed Dupree to a five-year, $6 million contract.
“I am very excited about being in New Orleans,” Dupree said in his initial press conference. “I’d like to thank the league for letting me be here.”
After missing the Breakers first game against Oakland, he suited up in New Orleans’ first home game of the season against the Memphis Showboats.
On his first carry as a pro, Dupree scored a touchdown.
With their ‘local’ star on the field, the New Orleans faithful came to see him play and the team did not disappoint, at first.
New Orleans Breakers vs Tampa Bay Bandits, 1984. Marcus Dupree.https://t.co/V56m3KAqo2 pic.twitter.com/rJX9RKm9NT
— Tecmo Super Bull (@TecmoSuperBull) October 3, 2021
The Breakers started strong and, after nine games, their record was 7-2.
Unfortunately, they cratered with a 1-8 record in the second half of the year and finished 8-10.
Dupree continued to struggle with his weight and injuries.
Despite having two 100 yard rushing games, he gained only 684 yards and nine touchdowns total.
Injury Ends Dupree’s Career
After the season, the Breakers moved on from New Orleans and were relocated to Portland.
Dupree showed up late to training camp but still won a starting job.
During the first game of the year against the Arizona Outlaws, he had an outstanding first half, rushing for 69 yards on just 17 carries.
Then, in the second half, disaster struck.
While carrying the ball early in the third quarter, Dupree suffered a serious knee injury.
The news was not good and the examining doctor believed Dupree’s playing days were over.
“I don’t think he’ll ever play football again,” Dr. Ray Haddad, an orthopedic surgeon at Tulane Medical Center, said.
Although Dupree had surgery on his knee soon after, he was devastated that his playing days were over at the young age of 21.
“It’s really tough to take,” Dupree said. “He (Haddad) said he didn’t think it would be a good idea for me to play anymore. He said I could hurt the knee permanently, especially the way I run. He said there is no way I’d be able to cut the way I used to.”
Just like that, the bright, shining star from Philadelphia, Mississippi, who had the talent to become one of the greatest running backs in football history, was finished.
Or was he?
Over the course of the next few years, Dupree hobbled around Philadelphia on his bum knee.
He quickly gained weight and generally let himself go, resigned with the fact that he was no longer an athlete.
That’s when Sweetness entered the picture.
Walter Payton, the great Chicago Bears running back, met Dupree during a joint business venture.
Payton knew Dupree’s story but didn’t believe Dupree could no longer play football.
He encouraged Dupree to get in shape and try to make a comeback with the NFL.
It was a long shot.
By then, Dupree had been out of the game for nearly five years.
However, he was motivated by Payton and hit the gym and the track.
In just three months, Dupree lost over 100 pounds and was clocked in the 40-yard dash at 4.3.
He then approached the Los Angeles Rams.
The team had drafted him in 1986, just in case he ever played again.
LA’s quarterbacks coach, Dick Coury, was Dupree’s former coach with the Breakers.
Dupree asked Coury for an opportunity to show what he could do.
Coury and Rams head coach John Robinson agreed and put Dupree through the paces.
The coaches were impressed enough after the try-out and signed him to a contract.
This Marcus Dupree Los Angeles Rams trading card is all the flames. pic.twitter.com/6etIWMVujF
— Walker Carey (@walkerRcarey) January 13, 2016
It was the feel good story of the 1990 NFL season.
More than five years after leaving the game, Marcus Dupree finally made it to the NFL.
Since he was a late signee, Dupree didn’t see action until Week 9 when he ran the ball four times for 22 yards against the Oilers.
Dupree played sparingly the rest of the season, gaining 72 yards on 19 carries and zero touchdowns.
He returned to the Rams in 1991, although he missed the first seven games with a toe injury.
In Week 8, Dupree was cleared to play and did well, scoring his first NFL touchdown against the Raiders.
For the remainder of the year, Dupree gained 179 total yards along with his touchdown.
After the ‘91 season ended, Robinson was fired and replaced with Chuck Knox.
During the 1992 preseason, Dupree was feeling good.
He led LA in rushing and even posted a 100-yard day against the Raiders in the team’s final preseason game.
Shockingly, Dupree was one of the final cuts the next day.
Knox told the media that Dupree wasn’t what he was looking for in a running back.
With that, Dupree decided to call it quits for good.
His final totals as an NFL player were 68 rushing attempts for 251 yards and one score.
Dupree stayed active in retirement, working as a professional wrestler for the United States Wrestling Association.
He also worked as a supervisor for British Petroleum during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion cleanup.
Dupree also spent time running a sports bar, working as a casino greeter, driving a semi-truck, managing Mid South Wrestling (a pro wrestling organization) and traveling as a motivational speaker.
He currently owns a business called Marcus Dupree MVP College Recruiting & Consulting, which helps high school athletes successfully navigate both school and sports.
Although he didn’t become the NFL star many thought he would, Dupree is content with the life he currently lives.
“I’ve got grand kids. I’m in pretty good spirits with that,” he said in 2021. “I’m just living. We’re all going to have ups and downs. It’s not how long you stay down. It’s how quick you get up.”
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