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A leader on and off field
Published August 25, 2008
Two nights before the Super Bowl, at the NFL commissioner’s annual party, 47-year NFL executive Jack Steadman embraced Gene Upshaw to thank him for all he had done for the game of football.
“I told him, had it not been for you, the NFL would not have been able to grow into the pre-eminent league in the world,” said Steadman, recently retired from the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. “He was a reasonable guy as far as understanding the economics and understanding how the players will benefit from the growth of the league.”
Upshaw’s unexpected death last week leaves a void at the top of America’s leading sports union, the NFL Players Association, at a time when the players and owners had been gearing up for another round of labor talks (see story, page 37).
Had Upshaw, 63, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Aug. 17 and died three days later, survived, Steadman is sure that yet another settlement would have been reached with the league.
In 25 years at the wheel, the forceful Upshaw drove the union through a decade of labor unrest and into 15 years of peace.
“He was the greatest leader in the history of professional sports for players,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the NFLPA outside counsel and close confidant of Upshaw.
Kessler pointed particularly to the union’s success in gaining free agency for players.
“He led the players to freedom, literally,” Kessler said. “There was not freedom until Gene Upshaw led them to that place.”
Trace Armstrong, the former player president and now outside adviser to the union, said, “I don’t think there is a person on the planet who could have done what he did. No one knew how close the owners were to winning back in ’89 and ’87 and ’93, and Gene pulled us through.
“I think people who didn’t know Gene well did not know how strong a person he was,” Armstrong continued. “He never showed fatigue; he never blinked in the face of adversity. That is how he lived and that is how he ended.”
Upshaw did receive tremendous heat from many quarters, including those who felt that he had not bargained well enough for his players. Even after negotiating, in 2006, a CBA extension that the owners would later consider so poor for them that they would opt out of the contract, critics continued to pile on Upshaw, airing complaints about everything from pension benefits to the lack of guaranteed contracts. Nonetheless, NFL players today receive a larger percent of revenue, at 60 percent, than players in any other league in the country.
More recently, retired players ferociously criticized Upshaw, claiming that he had not done enough for them, even though under government regulations he could not represent them. In the last few months, a group of active players attempted to unseat him, and when that initiative failed, they looked to find a successor, another effort he beat back.
“While he was fighting for his life, he was fighting for a union that he had led so effectively,” said Marc Ganis, an NFL consultant.
Upshaw was born into poverty in 1945 in Texas, and he played football collegiately at what is now Texas A&M University-Kingsville. He was drafted in 1967 in the first round by the Oakland Raiders, for whom he would play 15 years as an offensive lineman, then make the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. A player representative during the 1970s, he took over the union in 1983 and led it through a strike and the free agency era.
His bold move to decertify the union in 1989 so the players could sue the league for free agency finally moved the labor issue forward and led to the current NFL system of salary cap and player movement that has underpinned the growth of the league.
“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,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement.
His death came as a shock even to those closest to him.
Friends of Upshaw said last week that they did not know he was seriously ill, though several sources said that he had lost a great deal of weight, especially in recent weeks. Upshaw entered a hospital on Aug. 17, and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died Wednesday night at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
He is survived by his wife, Terri; their sons, Justin and Daniel; and a son from a previous marriage, Eugene Jr.