Inside the gymnasium, a handful of kids play basketball--try to, anyway, their short arms tossing up bricks that carom like pinballs all over the hardwood. It is, as it always is these days, unrelentingly hot outside, and these boys, none older than 10, have taken shelter in the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center on Spring Avenue during these last few days before school begins. It is their regular asylum, where they come after school to do their homework, shoot hoops or merely hang out in the taxpayers' frosty air conditioning in summer and cozy warmth in winter. They love this place, perhaps because they rule this place; even during a summer-break afternoon, it's all but empty, save for the full-time supervisor, another friendly man named Mark Gregory, and some part-time helpers who kill the dog days by shuffling dominoes on a long white table.
The kids take a break for a moment to watch a Dallas Observer photographer take a few pictures of the man who supervises both this rec center, which is located only yards away from the new multifamily homes being constructed on the site of the former Frazier Courts public housing abomination, and the nearby Mildred L. Dunn Recreation Center. They wonder why anyone would want a photo of the man they know mostly as "B.J." or "Billy Joe." Says Gregory: "They have no idea who he is. They only know what he does."
He is former Dallas Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree, a familiar name to anyone who grew up in Dallas in the 1970s and '80s. He was as much a reason the Cowboys won Super Bowl XII in 1978, 27-10 against the Denver Broncos, as the football itself; DuPree led all receivers that day with four catches totaling 66 yards. DuPree, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 1973, played his entire 11-season career with Dallas and appeared in three Super Bowls and three consecutive Pro Bowls. As much as anyone from that era--Tony Dorsett, Harvey Martin, Randy White, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, perhaps even Roger Staubach--DuPree embodies those great teams of long ago. The man never missed a single game.
Billy Joe DuPree
To find him here, of all places--in the middle of a neighborhood defined by the housing projects that sat here for some six decades, before they rotted so much the Dallas Housing Authority finally tore them down to begin anew--is nothing short of astonishing. The city does not publicize his involvement at the Craft and Dunn centers, and DuPree's name is absent from the daily newspapers unless there is some debate about who belongs in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor in Texas Stadium, from which the former tight end's name is inexcusably absent.
He is here, he says, because it's where God wants him. DuPree, who had his own construction company after he retired (CWC Construction) till he sold it in the late 1980s, had no intention of working in recreation centers. For a few years, he worked for the city of Dallas in the Office of Minority Business, where, as an executive manager, he made sure contracts that demanded minority participation were being complied with. But when the city scaled back its staff, DuPree was moved out of the department and put on a waiting list from which the city would fill spots as they became available.
In 1998, he was asked if he would be interested in working at a rec center. He wasn't sure. He went down to the Craft and met a young boy who asked if DuPree would read to him. The boy should have been old enough to read, but he couldn't even make it through "a Dick and Jane primer," as DuPree puts it. That was reason enough to stay, he says. Maybe he could help some kids learn a few things in a neighborhood where crime and poverty provide most of life's lessons.
"I just decided I could help a few people, so I took the position," he says. "And I've been here since. Now, my primary consideration is the patrons and making sure they have enough activity to occupy their time and attention, particularly the youth. I try to get them in a posture where they have their time occupied with some positive influences, as opposed to letting them feel their way through the system."
And, he will tell you, it is not easy acting as a positive influence in the Frazier neighborhood. DuPree says that 20-year-old Kenneth Haggerty, one of two men killed last month in a gang-related shooting at the downtown club El Angel, worked at the Craft center part-time. His murder threatens to undermine what DuPree's tried to accomplish: While he says there have been "maybe one or two" incidents of gang-related activity on the grounds in eight years, some parents in the neighborhood say they refuse to let their kids play at the Craft because of its violent reputation. And just like that, a haven can go to hell.
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"People know my name, but they don't know me as an individual," DuPree says. "What I have tried to do is involve folks who live in the community and give them an opportunity and have them give guidance to people they know. That's why I've hired adults and youths from the neighborhood: They could associate with people coming in and help them."
All, of course, is not well in the neighborhood; it contains some of the worst pockets of crime in the city, and the Greater Bethlehem Baptist Church just across Spring Avenue is preparing to move to a newer, larger facility several miles away, erasing one of the few bright spots from the corner. And though the DHA has begun constructing 76 new homes on the site of the former Frazier Courts, among a few hundred to be built in coming months and years with $60 million in federal grants and loans, the neighborhood lost many folks when the housing projects came down last year (see "Change Is Gonna Come," August 17). DuPree estimates he lost half of the kids he came down to South Dallas to help and worries that the city might shut down a rec center or two in the neighborhood, at least until folks move back into the DHA development.
Should that happen...well, the man was once a hero in this town. Still is. DuPree still gets invited to the celeb gold tournaments, still gets asked to appear here or speak there. And he doesn't live in Frazier or South Dallas. He comes and goes as he likes, leaving the mess in his rear-view mirror at the end of every day. But he won't just walk away. It was easy to leave football. DuPree did it when he was in good shape, still capable of playing. He was just done with it, ready for something else. Today, that's not the case. In eight years, he's seen kids grow up and watched some move out and some stay put and some get planted 6 feet deep. He's hopeful in the way all folks are when things can't get much worse; if not, all this time will have been wasted.
"Something good will happen here," he says. "But whatever happens, it has to be the burden of the entire community. They have to say, 'This is my community, and this is what I am going to do to take care of it.' I don't believe in helping people who aren't willing to help themselves. Somebody has to take the reins, and it would behoove the people in the community to have a better grip on it than someone else. I am just a visitor. They live here. It doesn't matter what the city does or what anyone else does. At some point, it's in their hands. "