30 for 30: The Best That Never Was

“He didn’t look like he was hustling because he was so smooth,” says Leon Baxtrum. “This was a young man that was unbelievable in just about every sense of the word.” The Youth League coach is remembering Marcus Dupree, whose startling speed on the football field left most everyone who saw him dumbfounded. “I just remember looking at the field and seeing 21 high school football players and Jim Brown,” says Billy Watkins, a reporter for the Meridian Star. “I had never seen anybody that big running that fast. It was indescribable.” Now, as he first appears in The Best That Never Was, Dupree walks. Making his way through a muddy truck-yard, he climbs into a bulldozer and sets to work.

Airing this week in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, Jonathan Hock’s compelling documentary charts Dupree’s trajectory from prodigiously talented high school running back to part-time truck driver. It’s a story of expectation and brilliance, disappointment and misfortune. It’s also a story of youthful energies misdirected and self-interested adults, of history and hope.

Dupree was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964, just three weeks before James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered. For most of Marcus’ life, notes the Neshoba Democrat‘s Sid Salter, “The whole county, the whole town, to a degree the whole state, bore the stain of what happened.” Dupree, the film notes early on, earned the respect, and even the awe, of everyone who saw him play, including the deputy sheriff linked to the murders, Cecil Ray Price (in 1967, despite the state’s best efforts not to bring charges in the case, he was convicted of violating their civil rights). “Daddy thought the world of Marcus,” says Cecil Jr. Under a local newspaper headline, “Philadelphia Story: City once torn by racism unites behind black,” the son recalls his own experience with his classmate, following the integration of Mississippi schools in 1970: “He would come to my house I would go to his house.”

With this story and some footage of Martin Luther King Jr. (hoping that, “From the blood of those young men, our whole nation would be redeemed, that we would rise to higher heights of brotherhood and understanding”), The Best That Never Was sets a broad frame for Marcus Dupree’s experience: he was never just a gifted kid. He was always carrying too many ambitions and dreams — for his family, his teammates and coaches, and a community in search of redemption.

At first, he appears so astoundingly gifted that you can see why so many people around him invested so much. Scratchy black-and-white footage of Dupree’s high school games confirm what witnesses say: it does look “like everybody else was standing still and he was the only one running.” His runs are so inspired and inspiring that you can see why Watkins sounds nearly rapturous: “I remember going back to the paper and thinking, ‘I have to tell them, I have to tell my readers what they have here, what they have an opportunity to see.'” Watching the film, you do feel lucky to see Dupree, and can only imagine what it must have been like to see him in person.

All that said and even if you don’t know the story, the film’s title indicates where Dupree is headed. Recruited by what he remembers as hundreds of colleges, he’s swayed by bad advice and the sorts of “incentives” that used to be offered without much compunction. As Watkins puts it, “Players were being bought, players were being given things, it was dirty.” The film includes interviews with recruiters and coaches who remember their determination to sign Dupree, how some moved to Philadelphia for months, offered cash and cars and housing for his mother Cella and younger brother Reggie (the film notes as well that Reggie suffered from cerebral palsy, which Dupree cites as a possible reason for his exceptional efforts, because “He couldn’t play and run like I could run”).

When, after months of back-and-forthing over where to go, he finally signs with the University of Oklahoma, Dupree is almost immediately disappointed once he arrives in Norman. Or, at least this is the story told by one of his advisors, Reverend Ken Fairley, who had been pushing him to go to the University of Southern Mississippi. While the film suggests Fairley has his own interests in Dupree’s career (and indeed, he ends up with some unspecified sort of control over Dupree’s money once he signs with the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers in 1984), it also makes clear that none of the adults in the process was looking out for Dupree per se. He had an Uncle Curlee who pressed for one decision or another (and whom Salter describes as “shadowy”), and a coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer, who’s introduced in his trophy room in Norman. The camera pans over prizes and awards as he notes of the team’s 1985 national championship, “Marcus would have been on that team.”

But he wasn’t. As the film goes on to tell, Marcus was unhappy with the coaching at Oklahoma (“He wanted to move me to tight end, you know, I’m the number one running back in the country”) and Switzer now says he had something like a protocol. Even though, he says, “Within the first week of practice, we know he’s he best player we’ve got,” Switzer says he decided not to use him because other players had been waiting to “get in the huddle.”

This makes sense for a college team, of course, but Dupree was 19 years old, and mystified by the coaches’ decisions. The documentary doesn’t explain exactly how the relationships went wrong, as each interview subject has his own version of events, but the upshot is that this astonishing player was not playing, and when the team did change its offense (from a wishbone to an I formation), Dupree was again remarkable. “In every game he was busting a long run,” remembers radio reporter Mick Cornett, “”A freshman putting together run after run after run. He immediately became the most popular person in Oklahoma outside of his head coach.” Again, footage of Dupree — this time in color — reveals how astounding he was, and why people who saw him were so moved.

Football, as everyone knows, is a brutal game. And it is at least partly premised on luck, as this can ordain which players play, which adults counsel them, where they play and how healthy they are or stay. The Best That Never Was leaves a lot of its story off-screen, focused less on who might be responsible for what or how Marcus ended up at any particular step of his journey, than on his brilliance, however short-lived. He’s injured more than once, he’s confused, and he’s prone to accept less than helpful recommendations. As Switzer sums up, “There was so much more to play and so much more to see we didn’t get to.” The question the film asks is most pertinent: who made up this “we” and where were they when Marcus Dupree needed them?

RATING 8 / 10