I was stunned when I heard the news Thursday of Gene Upshaw’s death from pancreatic cancer.
Upshaw was larger than life, first as a guard for the Oakland Raiders during his Hall of Fame playing career, then as the leader of the NFL players union for over a quarter of a century. He was such a tower of strength, such an intimidating presence.
Now he’s gone at 63, and the Bay Area, not to mention the entire NFL, has lost a legend and a lightning rod, a cock-sure man who possessed a rare mix of power, charisma and intelligence that took him so far as a player and union boss.
The story of Upshaw’s life would make for good cinema. He was raised in a small Texas town, attended a small Texas college and wound up becoming not only a Hall of Fame player but also the first black union boss in NFL history.
Of course there are some who wouldn’t pay to see that flick. For the final few years of his life, Upshaw took massive criticism from former players, including Mike Ditka, who complained that he hadn’t done enough to help the game’s pioneers, many of whom are in desperate need of medical assistance.
Upshaw bristled at the complaints and often fired back in anger and frustration. Well, Upshaw probably could have done more to help the old-timers. He wasn’t perfect. But that criticism shouldn’t overshadow his accomplishments and legacy.
Upshaw was a dominant offensive lineman, one of the best guards in NFL history. For most athletes, that would have been the pinnacle. But for Upshaw, known to his Raiders teammates as “The Governor,” in part because they thought he was aiming for a career in politics, it was only the beginning.
It was under Upshaw’s leadership that NFL players won the right to true free agency. Most of today’s players never saw Upshaw play in the NFL, but they can thank him every time they cash their six-, seven- and even eight-figure checks.
The NFL salary cap is $116 million per team. Players will earn close to 60 percent of the league’s total revenues. According to team owners, players will pocket $4.5 billion this year.
Some accused Upshaw of being too close to the owners and particularly to ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. But as Upshaw told me during one interview, he kept his friends close and his enemies closer. If Upshaw got bamboozled or got too close to Tagliabue, then why are the owners now crying that they can’t afford the deal? Why did they opt out of the contract and set the stage for what could be a cataclysmic collision between the union and team owners?
The money players are making today wasn’t fathomable in 1987 when Upshaw led a players strike that was quickly aborted, thanks in part to team owners deplorable use of so-called “replacement” players.
Today’s players should thank Upshaw for turning a lost strike into the catalyst for a resounding court victory. The players decertified their union and took the owners to court, accusing them of antitrust violations. That turned out to be a brilliant strategy.
Upshaw and the union won that court battle, and the prize was true free agency. Now, so many years after that victory, it’s easy to forget Upshaw’s crowning achievement off the field, not to mention his accomplishments as a Raider.
But this is a time to remember one of the greatest figures in NFL history.