At Hall of Fame party, nearly everyone wanted a photo with Marcus Dupree. Credit: MSHOF

The legend named Marcus Dupree scored 87 high school touchdowns, but that’s not what makes him the most proud. He had a book written about him by an accomplished author when he was 17, but that doesn’t make him most proud, either.

Dupree gained 1,144 yards as a college freshman and his brilliance caused the vaunted Oklahoma football program, coached by Barry Switzer, to change its offense to feature his kills. That’s nice, but not at the top of Dupree’s list.

Though he was 15 pounds overweight from being home for the holidays, he rushed for a still Fiesta Bowl record 249 yards essentially in one half – but not that’s not what he treasures most.

He scored a touchdown on his first professional carry as a New Orleans Breaker – before he was legally old enough to buy a beer – but that’s not tops for him.

Dupree is generally recognized as the most gifted high school football player to ever play the game, perhaps the most highly recruited player in history. Nice, but not tops.

Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

Last Saturday night, Dupree entered the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, an amazing feat for a guy who supposedly had had his athletic career ended at age 20. He is immensely proud of that but it is not at the top of list.

OK, so you want to know what is? You want to know what the great Marcus Dupree considers his singularly most satisfying feat? Well, here it is.

When Dupree’s knee was shattered in the opening game of his second USFL season, doctors said he was done. He not only has his left knee torn up, his left hamstring snapped. Doctors said he was finished, no way he could play again on that left wheel.

So Marcus Dupree, at 22, went home to Philadelphia where he he was still beloved and where he loved to eat his mama’s cooking. And he ate a lot, second helpings, third helpings and sometimes more.

Over the next five years he ballooned to 340 pounds, 100 pounds above his former playing weight. And then, in 1990 when he was involved in a couple business ventures with his hero, Walter Payton, the subject came up that he might consider a football comeback. Payton urged him to do just that. So did Bud Holmes, the Hattiesburg lawyer, who had been Payton’s agent.

Never mind that he looked more like an overweight, out-of-shape offensive tackle than a running back, never mind that his left knee was totally rebuilt, and never mind that Dupree’s work ethic, not his ability, was the only questionable part of his football make-up – he decided to try. If Las Vegas had made odds on Dupree’s comeback, oddsmakers would have taken one look at him and made him a 1,000-to-1 longshot.

And the former phenom, once so gifted that he never really had to work at it that hard, began to work in earnest.

He arose early and worked out in a overly heated gym for two hours. He then went to the track to get his running. In the afternoon, he was back in the weight room, and then back out at the track. He changed his diet. His drink of choice: organic apple cider vinegar. This he did every day for more than 100 days. The pounds of fat peeled off. The old muscle began to show through. He dropped 100 pounds, changing bad weight to good. He had someone time him in the 40-yard dash, and while the time wasn’t 4.29 as it had been five years earlier, it was well under 4.5. When you weigh 240, and run 4.4 – and your name is Marcus Dupree – you still turn some heads.

Holmes called the Los Angeles Rams, who still had his NFL rights. John Robinson, a coach who loved to run the football, was intrigued. Dupree went to camp, a 27-year-old, who had been out of the game for five years after being declared physically unable to play.

Truth be known, he couldn’t do some of the things he had done better than anyone before the injury. He couldn’t cut on a dime. He was more a straight-ahead runner, more fullback than tailback. But he made the team. He contributed. He ran over people. He scored an NFL touchdown, what he had dreamed of as a child in Philadelphia. He shattered the odds.

Now, a Hall of Famer and a genuinely nice gentleman at 53, he seemingly has no regrets. He proved something to himself. And that’s what makes him by far the most proud.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.