Standing in the early morning darkness outside of Sun Life Stadium on Saturday felt to former Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper like when he used to stand in the tunnel before a big football game.
Only what he was about to do was much bigger than any catch he ever made during his 11-year NFL career.
Duper was preparing to ride in the third annual Dolphins Cycling Challenge – a mere eight months after he had a cancerous tumor surgically removed. Doctors at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, the sole beneficiary of all the money raised by the charity bicycle ride, ended up saving his life and he couldn’t wait to repay them on the streets of Miami.
“It felt like I was about to play a football game and my blood was really pumping,” said Duper, who completed his 30-mile ride that took him to the Miami Beach Marina one year after falling less than five miles short of his 40-mile ride. “I just wanted to make sure that I could go because it’s only been eight months since they removed my whole kidney and I was scared. But it came out perfect and I even felt like I might have been able to keep going.”
Throughout his life after football, Duper never hesitated to support whatever charitable cause he was being approached to support and became one of the Dolphins’ most reliable alums. Be it a golf tournament or a luncheon or in this case a bicycle ride, the Louisiana native always showed up with a smile.
So last year when he was pedaling tirelessly down Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue and A1A, Duper had no idea just how directly connected to the cause he had become. Feeling out of breath and a little tender in his lower abdomen, he got off his bike at the last water stop and accepted a ride from one of the DCC support vehicles to the 40-mile ride finish line at Duffy’s in North Miami Beach.
Nat Moore, Duper’s teammate for most of those years and the team’s Senior Vice President/Special Advisor, encouraged Duper to get himself checked out at Sylvester. Fortunately, they discovered the tumor early enough in Stage 2 before it spread outside of his kidney and Duper remains cancer free as of his most recent checkup.
“It was very inspirational but it also was ironic,” former Dolphins linebacker and Finsider Kim Bokamper said on the team charter shortly before it took off for Indianapolis. “I mean here’s a guy who was riding last year and felt some tenderness and went and had it checked out. He’s on a ride to raise money for cancer and he feels some discomfort and fortunately he found it early enough to where they could take care of it.
“I thought about it (Saturday) when I saw him. I thought about it as soon as I saw him in the morning. First of all, it’s great to see him here because we all know how that can go, so it was great to see him there. I remember talking to him about it and he said, ‘I’ll always ride. I’ll always ride in it.’ To his credit he gutted it out and he made it to 30 miles and I give him credit for that. But I’m going to stay on him until he gets himself in shape and is able to do a little better.”
Just a couple hours after he crossed that finish line, Duper was still emotional and could not get over all of the kind words he heard during the ride from former teammates and other riders. There were people who were big fans of him from his playing days that simply wanted to know how he was feeling and to commend him for doing the ride.
Duper joked that he was thinking about hitting the golf course after ending his phone interview because he was feeling so alive. It made him realize just how far the medical field has come in treating cancer and working on finding a cure.
“What saved my life is all of that research that the doctors did all of those years before this charity event came about,” Duper said. “But 10 or 15 years ago they probably wouldn’t have been able to do what they did for me and I might not have survived. So this is a really big situation and it’s really important when it comes to doing charity and giving money for research. That way they can prolong your life and if they can find a cure for cancer that would be the biggest thing in America. It will save a lot of headaches and a lot of problems and the more research we do the better we’re going to be and it’s money well spent.”
Obviously, this cause is very close to Duper’s heart so his passion is palpable and warranted. It’s also contagious and has spread to the likes of Bokamper, Zach Thomas, Twan Russell and the countless other ex-Dolphins that donned a helmet and mounted a bike this weekend.
“All kidding aside, the times that I’ve finished that ride the sense of accomplishment is really fulfilling,” Bokamper said. “But to be in Mark’s shoes I can imagine what it meant to him to cross that finish line after everything he’s gone through. It really is a remarkable thing one year later.”
For Duper, it wasn’t difficult for him to take that feeling he had when he raised his arms in the air at the Miami Beach Marina as he passed under the “Finish Line” banner and relate it to his football days.
“Because of what I went through it felt like those great moments anytime that ball was in the air, we’re down a touchdown and we need this touchdown to win and Marino throws the ball to me,” said Duper, who was a three-time Pro Bowler for the Dolphins. “Whether it was against the Jets, the Rams or New England, I can see them like they are in slow motion. And this ranks right up there with those great catches for sure.”