But after that Silverdome catch, Shula projected Duper as a potentially great receiver. "He caught the ball with his hands, not against his chest like most track people," Shula says. "He was the fastest player in the draft, very quick and a tremendous all-around athlete." Miami made Duper a surprise second-round pick in 1982. "I was sure I'd go to Buffalo," says Duper. "I'd worked with [Bills quarterback] Joe Ferguson a lot the summer before my senior year, and I know he was pushing to get me. Joe had a house in Natchitoches [site of Northwestern State], and he'd come by the field house in the off-season. I always made it my business to be there."
"You could see the raw ability and the want-to," says Ferguson, "but he just didn't have any knowledge of what he was supposed to do. All he knew how to do was run down real hard and then cut in or cut out."
Even after he was drafted, Duper's lack of polish shocked some of his teammates. "He was doing stuff you see in Pop Warner," says fellow wideout Vince Heflin. "I was saying, 'How did this guy get drafted in the second round?' "
That question lingered throughout the 1982 season. Duper played a grand total of two downs. He hurt his ankle in training camp and then, soon after recovering, pulled a hamstring in a 40-yard postpractice match race against Dolphin cornerback William Judson. Shula was not pleased. But he was patient. He trusted his judgment. He remembered what Williams had told Wally English, a Dolphin assistant coach then: "Give Duper two years, and he'll improve more than you can possibly believe." After the season, Shula asked his son David, the Dolphins' new receiving coach, to make Duper his special development project.
Mark Duper's unfulfilled love had always been football. As a child he'd rooted for the Steelers and spent hours on the floor buzzing plastic figures across the grid of his electric football game. He would tell his parents, "Someday I'm going to be a running back," and then go outside to toss a ball around with his three older brothers, Sigfrieud, Walter Jr. and A.C.
Unfortunately, the Dupers were living in Moreauville (pop. 853), seven miles south of Marksville on Highway 1, and Moreauville didn't have an organized football team. Moreauville didn't have much of anything, really, besides a gin mill, a tractor dealership and a muddy creek. At one point Mark asked his parents if he could move in with a family in some other town that at least had a high school team. But no. The Dupers shared a tiny white house just half a mile from Our Lady of Sorrow Catholic church, which they attended. They were a close family. When Doris Duper's sons were toddlers, she loaded them into a little red wagon and pulled them half a mile to the Our Lady of Sorrow parochial school, where she worked as a cook. "Where we lived, we could walk to everything," says Mark.
Sigfrieud, now 36, was once a running back at Marksville High, before Moreauville got its own high school. But his career had ended there. "He was good," says Doris. "He tried to get into a school [Southwestern Louisiana] where he was good enough to play, but they wouldn't take him." She looks down, as if embarrassed. "You know, when they had all that stuff going around...that segregation stuff."
"They wouldn't take his application," says Walter Sr. "They didn't send our money back, either."
Mark met no such obstacles in joining the team at Northwestern State. He was in school on a track and field scholarship, and Dyes, his coach, had no objection to his trying football. " Joe Delaney talked to him and Victor [Oatis] about trying it," Dyes says. "The three of them were on that relay team that won the NCAAs. They were pretty close. That's how it started."
Delaney was Northwestern State's starting tailback. In 1981 he joined the Kansas City Chiefs and enjoyed two productive seasons. But in the summer of 1983, Delaney drowned back home in Monroe, La. while trying to save three young boys who had fallen into a mud-hole at a construction site. "Joe would always tell me, 'C'mon, Dupes, get out there. Give it a shot,' " says Duper. "Joe was a special guy. He made me realize that I could do it, too."