Most men that big usually roll over people to get what they want. What made Upshaw an All-Pro guard in his playing days, and then the right man for the union job for the past quarter-century, is that he understood it was better sometimes to go around them.
Not because he was nimble — though Upshaw was that, and plenty more — but because he was smart.
More than a few of his contemporaries offered testimonials Thursday to Upshaw’s toughness after hearing about his death from pancreatic cancer, even while still seething over his repeated failure to get them anything close to the medical coverage and pension benefits that current players enjoy. And more than a few current players struggled to put their differences aside, even for a moment, before praising Upshaw’s long service — if not always the results.
Not to be outdone, management types from commissioner Roger Goodell on down joined the chorus. Yet they, too, had plenty of unfinished business with Upshaw, most notably the last labor deal he cut with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Enough owners were upset by the players’ share of NFL revenues in 2010 — a 60 percent piece of what is projected to be a $10 billion pie — that they voted to opt out of the deal and risk a confrontation with the players. Some lap dog Upshaw turned out to be.
So the most fitting tribute to the man isn’t just free agency, or the phenomenal growth of the league, or even the players’ share of the take. It’s that he accomplished all those things while making people on both sides of the labor divide unhappy to his dying day. Because that’s what makes compromise possible.
Matt Millen wound up bumping heads with Upshaw in practice nearly 30 years ago as a rookie linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, but only indirectly in recent years as president of the Detroit Lions’ and a member of the NFL’s management-union council. What impressed him was how much of what Upshaw accomplished as a player still informed how he conducted himself as a boss.
“That was the same way he operated as an executive. I’ve always said this, we used to joke all the time about how Gene was ’dumb like a fox.’ You could say whatever you wanted to say and in the end, it ended up going his way. And you’d go, ’How did he do that?”’
Plenty of his union members looked only at the concessions Upshaw made through the years and found themselves asking “Why did he do that?” instead. The short answer is that Upshaw decided early on that becoming a partner in growing the game was a better long-term strategy than fighting over every dollar in fits and starts.
CSN: Brian Urlacher, who played 13 seasons for the Bears, announced his retirement from football Wenesday on his personal twitter account.
CSN: The Super Bowl's golden anniversary will be held in the Golden State. The new stadium, which opens in 2014, in Santa Clara will host Super Bowl L two years later, the NFL announced Tuesday.
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.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
San Francisco to host Super Bowl L in 2016
The NFL announced that San Francisco has been chosen to be the host city for the 50th edition of the Super Bowl. Houston was picked to be host in 2017.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.
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.
Gene Upshaw dies