Tonight's 30 for 30 (ESPN, 8:00 p.m.) focuses on a magnificently talented athlete whose sketchy recruitment, turbulent college playing career, and shady advisers led to career disaster in the end. This should sound familiar, because 30 years later the same thing happens on a regular basis in college football, but without the spectacular afros and glasses you'll see in the documentary.
The Best That Never Was does have some fascinating racial elements in its story of how Marcus Dupree, the highest ranked running back in the nation in 1981, gave Philadelphia, MS a claim to fame besides being the site of the murders that inspired Mississippi Burning. The milieu is a mindbending one. Dupree is friends with the son of the sheriff who turned three civil rights workers over to the KKK to be murdered; later, he gets a job from the former sheriff himself, who "loves" Marcus and goes well out of his way to help him in a time of trouble. Race is certainly part of the Dupree story, but as gory as Philadelphia's history of racial turmoil is, it's not the most quease-inducing element of the story.
The most uncomfortable part of the documentary, however comes in watching Dupree (now a truck driver in Mississippi) and others retrace the train wreck that his recruitment and collegiate career became. At 18, Marcus Dupree was the next coming of Jim Brown. At 21 he has become Maurice Clarett before Clarett ever existed, albeit minus the Israeli gangsters and jail time: injured, washed up, and out of football entirely wondering what happened in the short span of three years.
When you're finished, you're wondering much the same thing, even though you just watched it happen in the most predictable way possible: a reliance on sketchy advisors, a youthful pride colliding with a domineering and sometimes impetuous coach (Barry Switzer), random injury, and the impatience of youth that sometimes precedes complete disaster. There's a gut-wrenching scene where a brutally honest Dupree walks his old high school football field and talks about failure as he stands there, a middle-aged man with a ruined body attempting to answer unanswerable questions. It would be the cliched stuff of ruined athlete lore if Dupree himself weren't so nakedly honest about the worst things that ever happened to him, and if it weren't so unpretentiously presented by the filmmakers.
Like watching old film of him rolling through high school defenses like a man among toddlers, it's excruciating to watch, and yet riveting. It's one of the best 30 for 30s yet, and required viewing for the evening. Watch it.