When John Kouris ’96 was a walk-on freshman on the Notre Dame football team, he couldn’t wait for the first game of the season. The Irish were playing Northwestern in Chicago and Kouris, who grew up in the Chicagoland area, was looking forward to having his family in the stands. But when he went to look at the list of players dressing for the game, his name was missing.
“I just felt my heart sink into my stomach, and I started talking out loud to myself, saying, ‘You gotta quit,’” Kouris recalls. Demetrius DuBose ’93, the senior All-American linebacker and captain, happened to be in the hallway at the same time. Kouris had just spent weeks of two-a-day practices going head-to-head with DuBose — calling it “the equivalent of going up against a ram,” — and he was exhausted and discouraged. He returned to his room in Flanner Hall and then, a couple hours later, a knock sounded at the door.
“It’s Demetrius,” said Kouris. “And he said, ‘Listen, I’ve been hard on you and that’s gonna stop now. I’m gonna take you under my wing and I’m going to help you on the field. And if you need anything, you come see me.’ And I was just so touched. I don’t even know how he figured out where I lived.
“He told me, ‘You need to be about business and football,’” Kouris said. “I considered him a mentor and a guide and somebody I aspired to be like.”
Now, 28 years after that first conversation — and amid a national reckoning on racial injustice — Kouris is making a documentary about DuBose’s life, which was cut short at age 28 when he was shot and killed by police in San Diego in July 1999.
The circumstances around DuBose’s death, set into motion by a misunderstanding with a neighbor, are clouded in controversy. On the evening of July 24, 1999, DuBose had climbed onto a neighbor’s balcony for a better view of the sunset and then fell asleep on the premises. When the neighbor got home, he called the police, who showed up and said they were responding to a call about a burglary.
Though DuBose, his friend Randy West — who he was living with at the time —and the neighbor had nearly resolved the issue by the time the police arrived, the officers began questioning DuBose about his record, citing a disturbance charge at at South Bend bar in 1998 and an underage alcohol violation from college. DuBose cooperated and the officers told him he was not in any trouble, but they moved to handcuff him, anyway.
Witnesses say that DuBose resisted, and in the ensuing scuffle, was shot 13 times, including six times in the back. The two officers, who were white, said that DuBose had assumed a “linebacker’s stance” before charging at them, but witness testimonies provided conflicting information. Several stated that DuBose was turning away from the officers, while at least one placed him at least 10 feet away from them.
In the ensuing days, demonstrations popped up all over San Diego as the Black community reacted to the news. DuBose’s mother, Jacqueline DuBose-Wright sued the city for wrongful death.
While the FBI and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California ruled that the shooting was justified, a citizen review board ruled that the officers “did not exercise sufficient discretion” when they shot DuBose. Kouris says he wants the documentary to “rehumanize Demetrius in the public’s eye,” and tell the full story of his life, not just the violence in his final moments.
Back in the fall of 1992, struggling on the field was a new experience for Kouris, the son of a Big Ten football referee and tight end who had been recruited out of high school by Duke, North Carolina, and Western Michigan. But it had always been his dream to play at Notre Dame, so he came to South Bend to walk on and run through the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. Adjusting to college and the pace of Division I football was tough, but DuBose helped make it easier.
“I had never seen the level of athleticism. [Even] our fourth-string guys were incredible,” Kouris said. “Demetrius stood out, though. And it wasn’t just how he played — it was how he carried himself. He had an effervescent light around him. Students, faculty, people in the football office, the training staff and the managers — Demetrius was kin to all people, all walks of life.”
When Kouris interviewed friends from DuBose’s hometown of Seattle for the documentary, he heard similar stories about his time in high school.
“A couple of people were openly gay at his high school and they were ostracized, and what did Demetrius do? He goes and sits with them at lunch,” Kouris said. “He was the star of the school, and other people saw [him sit with them] and the issues stopped. He looked out for people who were overlooked.”
When DuBose was killed, Kouris was shocked and devastated. They hadn’t kept in close touch in the years since Notre Dame. DuBose played in the NFL for a couple years and then was in San Diego to start a career in beach volleyball. Kouris was working in the food distribution business in Chicago.
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading — the newspaper articles were describing a dangerous, violent, drug-addled guy. And it didn’t feel right,” Kouris said. “Like so many other people, I said, ‘Why did they have to shoot him so many times?’ Rather than, ‘Why did they shoot him at all?’ — which should have been my thought.”
He saved the newspaper articles (“They’re yellow now,”), and revisited them when similar stories began gaining mainstream attention in recent years.
“When Michael Brown was killed [by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014], that set me off, and I became obsessed with Demetrius’ story. [I said] ‘You gotta do this, no matter the cost.’” So he started working on the documentary.
Kouris, who went to film school before working in the food industry, got in touch with DuBose’s mother through friends to get her blessing and the family’s support for the film. He’s been working on the film in his spare time, during nights and weekends, for years, interviewing DuBose’s family members, Notre Dame and NFL teammates, friends, and former significant others. After 35 interviews, he is in the process of editing 55 hours of footage into a documentary.
Kouris is the director and is working with a director of photography, plus friends and family have pitched in to help film interviews. They are also in talks with production companies to distribute the film. He’s put his own money into the project, as well as donations from friends and Notre Dame teammates. Kouris says the goal is to release the documentary either by the end of 2020, or on what would have been DuBose’s 50th birthday: March 23, 2021. They’ll host a screening in Seattle for family and friends (pending safety regulations amid the COVID-19 pandemic). Not only is it important to him that DuBose’s story be told, but Kouris also wants the film to contribute to the current national conversation about racial injustice.
“It needs to be a film that raises our collective consciousness as a world. My hope is that Demetrius’ beautiful spirit will shine through this project and will get everyone to stop what we’re doing right now, because my children — I can’t have them in a world like this,” said Kouris, who is pictured holding DuBose’s jersey with his son, Lucius.
“There is no justice — he’s gone. No matter what we do, it won’t bring him back, but I want people to feel him when they’re seeing this [film] and maybe he can always be alive if this keeps playing. It’s important for us to come together around our captain, around his story, and I’m just a part of it.”