ALAMEDA, Calif. - Long before Gene Upshaw helped usher in the era of free agency and multimillion dollar contracts into the NFL as the head of the players union, he was a devastating blocker who helped the Oakland Raiders win two Super Bowl titles as a Hall of Fame guard.
A day after he died of pancreatic cancer at age 63 at his home near California’s Lake Tahoe, Upshaw was remembered by the Raiders for his accomplishments both on and off the football field.
“When I think about Gene Upshaw I think about No. 63 pulling,” Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown said Thursday. “A lot of people called it Highway 63. That’s what I remember and know about Gene. When he pulled around that left side, it’s like a hurricane is coming through. He wiped out everything that was there.”
Upshaw arrived in Oakland in 1967 as a little-known first-round pick out of Texas A&I. He helped the Raiders make it to the Super Bowl in his first season and later teamed with future Hall of Famers Art Shell and Jim Otto on one of the league’s best offensive lines.
Upshaw was a seven-time Pro Bowler and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, yet probably had more impact on the game in his time as union leader.
“If you look at the history of the NFL you’re going to find out that he was one of the most influential people that the league has known,” said Upshaw’s former coach, John Madden. “He did so much, not only for the players, but also for the owners, the teams, and the game of pro football.”
Raiders owner Al Davis said the world “lost a great man” with Upshaw’s death. After spending so many years together in Oakland, Davis and Upshaw worked on opposite sides during labor negotiations in recent years.
But the strong relationship forged during their time together in Oakland helped keep labor peace in the NFL in recent years. Davis and Upshaw worked closely with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue on the last labor contract in 2006, avoiding a possible work stoppage.
“Gene Upshaw’s career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled,” Davis said. “He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known. He was and will remain a part of the fabric of our lives and of the Raider mystique and legacy. We loved him and he loved us. We will miss him.”
Shell called his good friend and former teammate a “true pioneer” for becoming one of the few African American leaders of a major union.
“He was the equal of owners in negotiations and made the league a better place for all players,” Shell said. “Playing alongside of Gene was an honor and a privilege. He was a pillar of strength and leadership for our great Raider teams.”
Brown quickly saw the leadership skills in Upshaw when the two became roommates in 1967. Those skills would become more evident decades later when Upshaw led the players through their fight with ownership for free agency. That’s why Brown worked so hard back in 1970 to persuade Upshaw to become a player representative.
“He fought me for a while, saying ’No, I don’t want anything to do with it,”’ Brown recalled. “But when I got elected to the executive board to the players association I told Gene, ’I need you to be the player rep.’ Because I saw those qualities that other people hadn’t seen. I knew right away that Gene had the leadership and qualities to be a leader on and off the football field.”
That leadership was immediately evident to Matt Millen, when he joined the Raiders as a rookie in 1980. The Raiders started slowly that season, losing three of their first five games.
But they rallied to finish the season 11-5 and went on to become the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl with a 27-10 victory over Philadelphia.
“All too often when you start talking about those old Raider teams everybody just thinks they were a bunch of nuts who just happened to play well together,” Millen said. “But Gene played the same way he was as an executive with the players association. Gene was very clever. He was a clever player. He was physically gifted and talented, but mentally he was a notch above because Gene would always use you against you.”
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
NFL mourns death of Gene Upshaw
Aug. 21: Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association and former Oakland Raiders lineman, died of cancer Thursday at age 63. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
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