It was the early 1980s, and these owners used to look at Upshaw cockeyed, because here was a strong-willed former player sitting across the negotiating table from all these old billionaires who came from a different generation where men like Upshaw “knew their place.” They’d never dealt with anyone quite like Upshaw, a former player and young black man who wasn’t interested in appeasement. He sat there at the head of the table as the NFL Players Association’s new labor boss in the early 1980s and talked tough to these old school owners.
Upshaw was the most stubborn man I knew, unafraid to pluck the nerve of every one of those old men. Upshaw would walk into the room with an enormous chip on his shoulder. He was the strongest voice in the room, and the NFL players of the 1980s — woefully underpaid and tired of being treated like cheap pieces of interchangeable property — gladly followed him. In those turbulent times when labor strife was as much a part of the NFL as first downs, Upshaw was fresh off the playing fields and still full of the tough-guy attitude that made him a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Oakland Raiders.
On Thursday morning when I learned that Upshaw had passed away at the far too young age of 63, that is the man I wanted to remember. I was a young man back then, covering the daily blow-by-blow of the NFL labor strife, and I would spend many long days and grueling nights in hotel lobbies and ballrooms talking with Upshaw about football and labor strategies.
Before Upshaw took over the union, the NFL owners ran roughshod over the players. The salaries were low and the idea of free agency, 60 percent of the gross and getting a big slice of the lucrative NFL Properties were all pipe dreams. Upshaw would be the man to change all that, and he did it with a gruff and iron personality that didn’t tolerate any dissenting voices.
I used to ask him why he always came across so damned contentious during his press conferences. I used to ask him if he didn’t understand that in the battle for the hearts and minds of the football-paying public, his public persona was losing by a landslide to the smooth front men for the public-relations savvy owners.
“I’m not trying to win those hearts and minds,” he told me then. “It’s the hearts and minds of the men in those locker rooms I gotta win. I’m not worried about what the public thinks of me. I’m worried about what those players think of me. I lived in a locker room all my life. I know what they expect out of me.”
That’s the man I want to remember, but my greatest regret is that the last few times that Upshaw and I talked, we were growling at each other.
We argued about the way he had managed to alienate the retired players. We argued about how his voice had changed from a champion of the men who played the game, to a voice that seemed a bit too corporate and callous.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
In the end, Gene Upshaw was much bigger than the contentious final chapter of his life. He was one of the most unique men to ever walk inside the world of professional football, a larger than life labor leader whose post-playing career actually dwarfed his Hall of Fame athletic legacy.
In the big picture, pro football is indisputably a better place because of the vision of Gene Upshaw.
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Gene Upshaw: Player and Director
A look at an NFL legend both on and off the playing field.