A Force Of Nature Named Upshaw

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - August 27, 2008
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Gene Upshaw was a force of nature. In seemingly everything he did, he came forward with brutal power, whether the opponent was a defensive lineman or a union in such bad shape that the only recourse was to blow it up.

Now dead at the age of 63 from pancreatic cancer, he leaves behind in his wake both admirers and detractors. But no one can deny that his talent and force of will changed the game he played and the very business that is the National Football League.

A first-round draft pick by the Oakland Raiders in 1967 out of tiny Texas A&I, he went on to forge a playing career that saw him play in 207 straight games, make seven Pro Bowls, 11 All Pro teams and win two Super Bowls.

After 15 years, and in his first year of eligibility, he became the first player to enter the Hall of Fame playing exclusively the guard position.

Even with all the talent and strange cast of characters that included eight Hall of Famers during their 1970s heyday, Upshaw, with his heavily padded arms, neck brace, thick beard and intense eyes peering from under his scarred helmet and from behind his large face mask, stood alone as the visual image of the big, tough Oakland Raiders.

Along with center Jim Otto and tackle Art Shell, Upshaw completed one of the most formidable blocking combinations in NFL history, paving the way for Oakland’s powerful running game and giving quarterback Ken Stabler time to find Dave Casper, Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch, who provided the air game for Al Davis’ beloved pound-and-bomb offensive philosophy.

But had Upshaw not been so dominant on the football field, he post-playing career would have ensured him enshrinement into the Hall.

Upshaw took over a fractured players union that had little bargaining power and was subservient to ownership, and helped to create a powerful labor organization that came to enjoy a true partnership with the NFL and which helped lift the league to the peak of American sports.

This coziness would later be used by his critics who felt he had turned his back on the players, especially those no longer in uniform, and who believed he became too close to then commissioner Paul Tagliabu.

Upshaw’s early career in the union resembled his time as a player. He rode through the opposition, whether it was owners, players or the union itself. Where former union head Ed Garvey asked the league for a bigger share of revenue, Upshaw demanded it.

His “We are the game” speech to players helped galvanize the members into a unified force even when it became necessary to have the union decertified - a move that at the time seemed a risky power play, but one that actually saved the union and set the groundwork for its current success.

To those who agreed with his approach, Upshaw was a masterful combination of smarts and intestinal fortitude.

He was forceful in demanding a bigger share of the prize for the players, but was smart enough to realize that owners also needed protection on their investment. He worked with the league to generate new revenue streams, and his agreement to institute the franchise player designation was a wise concession for free agency.

To his detractors, he was a corporate toady more concerned with his multimillion-dollar salary than the guys on the field. Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover led an effort to oust Upshaw as the executive director by March 2009.

The effort didn’t go far, but criticism continued and even got more bitter as former players began hounding the league and the union for help with their mounting medical bills.

Led by fellow Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, the griping got so bitter and personal that Upshaw issued one of his many controversial statements when he gruffed that he doesn’t work for retired players. He gained even more unwanted attention when he responded to fellow Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, a loud critic of the NFL’s pension program, saying,“I’d like to break his neck.”

Whether Upshaw was a sinner or saint as union chief depends on whom you talk to. But one thing that cannot be discounted is the impact he had on minority hirings.

Upshaw was a massive, visible symbol of employment diversity within the upper reaches of sports management. Even with African Americans making up 69 percent of NFL rosters, according to the Racial and Gender Report Card, from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, upper management positions in the league, and in all professional sports, remains a difficult plateau for minority candidates. Upshaw’s two-decade reign, while not as visible as, say, Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy, was a direct assault on the unfair hiring practice that still retards the careers of minority candidates.

That Robert Smith and Troy Vincent, both African Americans, are considered as possible successors shows that Upshaw was able to help break down such barriers.

Alphonso Braggs, the president of the Honolulu chapter of the NAACP, said the former Raider should be recognized and applauded:

“I think the lesson we take away from it is that, yes, African Americans not only can play and succeed in this sport, but that they can manage this sport, and they can keep it where it needs to be and deal with the challenging issues this sport needs to deal with.

“I look at Gene Upshaw, I look at others who have ascended to front office positions and leadership roles as head coaches, and I think those guys have really paved the way for other African Americans to move up.”

Whoever does take over the job will have a difficult task ahead.

In May, the owners voted unanimously to exercise their option to reopen negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement after the 2008 season with a lockout of player possible in 2011.

There is no question that the replacement will come out of the Upshaw camp, but there is no guarantee that person will be as effective.

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