NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw Dies at 63 from cancer
(Philadelphia, Pa) — The National Football League (NFL) family includes players, coaches, owners, media, and everyone else that makes up “America’s Game”, sure from time to time family members may not see eye to eye on a lot of issues around the league, but one thing for sure is that “we are a family”. That is why the devastating news that former Hall of Fame player and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw had passed away Thursday morning at age 63 from pancreatic cancer shook the 89-year old league right down to its core.
Some may choose to remember Upshaw as a 16-year Hall of Fame guard (1967-1981) on the vaunted Oakland Raiders offensive line that helped produce two Super Bowl championships or as the tough leader of the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) since 1983. But one thing is for sure the NFL’s heart is very heavy for the loss of a man that was a respected pioneer who lived and breathed the NFL. Some could even argue that Upshaw deserves a place on the NFL’s Mount Rushmore with the likes of Pete Rozelle, Jim Thorpe, Bert Bell, Art Rooney, George Halas, and many others who’s impact went far beyond the playing field.
On the field, Upshaw coming out of Texas A&M-Kingsville was selected in the first round of the 1967 draft with the 17th overall pick. Some may have wondered if Oakland Raiders owner and architect Al Davis had picked an O-lineman too soon, but Upshaw (6’5, 255) soon vindicated the Raiders organization by starting in ’67 and not relinquishing his spot until his retirement in 1981, producing seven Pro Bowls and an five all-pro selections along the way. Upshaw then joined his offensive line brother tackle Art Shell in 1968 and the pair were a stellar combination that kept quarterback Kenny Stabler clean and were instrumental in winning Super Bowls XI and XV — only player in NFL history to play in three Super Bowls in three different decades (60’s, 70’s and 80’s). Shell, also a Hall of Famer, played next to Upshaw for 14 years with the men growing to be more like kin than teammates. Shell said of the passing of his dear friend, “Today, our family and the entire football world is saddened and feels a great loss”. Shell added, “Our friend Gene Upshaw was a dynamic leader on and off the field. Gene was a pioneer, one of the first African-American leaders of a major union. He was the equal of the owners in negotiations. He championed many causes, which made the league a better place.
Unlike most players who step away from the spotlight after their playing career, Upshaw broke from the quiet lineman mold by speaking up for players after being unanimously elected NFLPA executive director in June 1983. It was in this role that the public grew to see Upshaw as he championed player’s causes of Free Agency, better playing conditions, compensation including revenue sharing, retirement, and labor negotiations. It was in labor movement that I believe Upshaw distinguished himself — Part of CBA negotiations in 1977 (player), 1982 (player) and 1993 (Executive Director); plus was instrumental in CBA extensions in 1998, 2002 and 2006. He helped the union revolutionalize the NFL by fighting for free agency by working through a player strike in 1987 where the NFL played four games with replacement players. In the end, the players gained free agency and labor harmony has been a fixture within the NFL for the past 21 years. Upshaw said about the fight for free agency, “It was the only alternative we had”. He added, “The union is in place to protect the players, not the owners. If the union isn’t doing its job, it shouldn’t be there.” After being part of the team that brought NFL players to an entirely new compensation level, Upshaw was re-elected/extended by the NFLPA for seven straight terms including his last deal that was to have run through 2010 with the formerly broke NFLPA having $100 million in it’s coffers and another $100 million in assets according to union records.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said of Upshaw in a statement, “Gene Upshaw did everything with great dignity, pride, and conviction. He was the rare individual who earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both for his accomplishments on the field and for his leadership of the players off the field. He fought hard for the players and always kept his focus on what was best for the game. His leadership played a crucial role in taking the NFL and its players to new heights. Gene’s tremendous love of the game also showed in his wide-ranging support of football at all levels. It is a sad day for the NFL, but Gene’s positive impact and legacy will live on for decades to come. All of us in the NFL reach out with our sympathy to Terri and the Upshaw family”.
His wife, Terri, and sons, Justin, Daniel and Eugene Jr, survive Upshaw.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)