The crown jewel of the brilliant ESPN documentary collection, 30 for 30, has to be The Best That Never Was. At least for me. The documentary chronicles the life of Marcus Dupree, perhaps the greatest running back ever in high school football.
Dupree was the center of the most heated recruiting frenzy in the history of college football back in 1981. Nearly 100 schools hotly pursued Dupree’s signature before he ultimately landed in Norman, Oklahoma with the Sooners. With the expectation that he would evolve into the greatest running back ever to play college or professional football, the star did not disappoint in his freshman year. Marcus rushed for over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, while only starting six games, and was voted 2nd team All-American at age eighteen.
However, the promising career began to collapse over the course of several years. First, Dupree left Oklahoma after a contentious relationship with coaches, primarily head coach Barry Switzer, who routinely demeaned Dupree in the media. Then, the running back discovered that he would not be allowed to play for two years at Southern Mississippi, where a malevolent advisor, Kenneth Fairley, recommended he transfer.
His career seemed rescued when he signed a lucrative, six million dollar contract, with a USFL franchise. However, his financial fortune was squandered via the alleged exploitation and deceit of his advisor, and his career essentially ended with a catastrophic knee injury. While Dupree did make a noble and modest return to football, playing limitedly with the Los Angeles Rams for two seasons, he never reached the potential, wealth, or fame expected. The certain stardom amounted to an All-American freshman season, some success in the USFL, and nothing more. The documentary concludes with Dupree’s current life, where Marcus lives a middle class existence, working as a commercial driver and oil spill clean up laborer.
While the title of the documentary, The Greatest Player That Never Was, insinuates that Dupree will be deemed a failure, the documentary paints a broader picture of his life. The conclusion includes sound bites from coaches and journalist declaring that Dupree failed to measure up, with Switzer stating that he “didn’t have it.” So much glory and wealth seemed so close but was never realized. Society only can define this as tragedy and failure.
However, as the film continues, one starts to see the kindness and meekness of Dupree’s heart. The true culmination of the documentary includes a touching theme carried throughout the film, focused on the relationship between Marcus and his brother Reggie, who never could walk fully due to cerebral palsy. One journalist believed that Marcus worked so hard in sports as a means to support his brother, who had limitations in his youth due to disability. The film ends with Marcus crying with compassion for his brother, saying that he only wanted to succeed as a means of serving and inspiring his mother and brother. The moment reveals that the fabric of the heart of Marcus Dupree is love, loyalty, compassion, and sensitivity for his brother.
When asked in an espn.com interview with Lynn Hoppes about an assessment of his life, Dupree replied, “I can’t really complain. God puts things in the way. And it only makes you stronger. If God had wanted it to happen for me, he would have made it happen for me…I’m really happy with my life.” Instead of embracing self-pity or bitterness, God seems to have given Dupree and contrition, humility, and contentment.
The world calls Dupree’s life a tragedy, while the theologian of the Cross sees the truth and beauty of God’s hand in this situation. In terms of God’s Kingdom, a real tragedy would have been for Dupree to grow in wealth and prosperity in football, while growing a prideful hard heart. The theologian of the Cross calls the “bad” (failure, weakness, unrealized potential) “good” (the preservation of a heart dependent on God).
Dupree’s talent projected at least one Heisman trophy, NFL Pro Bowls, and millions of dollars; in essence, the ability to “gain the whole world.” Coaches in the film referred to his running ability as beautiful. The greatest beauty in the documentary, though, was that of the meek Marcus Dupree, crying with compassion and loyalty for his brother. It is the work and protection of God that the precious heart of this man was not ruined. The greatest gift Marcus Dupree received from God was not his athletic ability, but the love of his heart, which does not wear with age or injury.