Remembering Gene Upshaw
"I went out to the hall phone. We had a radio hookup to draft headquarters in New York that day, with a loud speaker, and I could hear
"All he did after that was get elected to the Hall of Fame."
People knew better to question the Raiders picks in those days. They were a team on the rise, and Upshaw, during his 15-year career, led them to three Super Bowls, two of them winners. The Raiders' locker room was one of the best in football, for characters. Everyone had something to say, and Upshaw, with a fine, understated sense of humor, and considerable depth underneath it, was one of the guys to whom you always headed when you wanted a quote or two.
I covered the team, off and on, during his entire career, 1967-81, but toward the end of it there was a new thrust. He had become active in union affairs, first as a player rep, then as a member of the NFL Players Association Board of Directors, then as the President and righthand man to
The union went through some rough times in the early part of that era. It had little national support from the press. The prevailing opinion, as expressed by Dallas'
Garvey entered the arena quietly, first as a council under
Garvey's demands were 55 percent of the gross revenues and a wage scale for veterans, and especially rookies. Free agency didn't interest him. Management, with a little foresight, could have signed a long range contract that would have saved them untold billions through the years, but the attitude, as expressed by Schramm and the Bucs'
Keating and Gent represented the union's free agency faction. The NFLPA already had won an anti-trust exemption in the famous Mackey case. Now was the time to drive hard for the big one. Keating had been on the NFLPA's Executive Council. He kept pressing the free agency point. So did other players and ex-players who were ambitious enough to attend the convention. But they came away from the sessions frustrated, angry.
They accused the union's directors of strongarm tactics, of squashing all attempts at dissent. Upshaw, especially, upset Keating, who had been his teammate on the Raiders for six years.
"He's turned into Garvey's hatchet man," he said.
I felt the same way. The introspective, reflective Upshaw had been replaced by a militant, a shoe on the table guy. And then when the convention had triggered a strike that kept the veterans out for seven games, and had produced a contract that ducked free agency in favor of "money now," and finally had propelled Upshaw into the Executive Director's spot, I figured the worst was in store.
I remember having a long talk with him in his office in Washington after he took control. He said he had been a different person in Albuquerque.
"I made mistakes," he said. "That wasn't really me. All you can do afterward is try to make things right."
Since then I talked to him, off and on, during the years. One criticism I always had of the NFLPA's bargaining posture was that player safety, elimination of artificial turf and the like, was always one of the first demands that was scrapped. It was always a throwaway issue. I got up on my high horse and said that worker safety should always be a prime concern of any legitimate union, not an early throwaway in negotiations.
"I try to negotiate for what the majority of my members want," he said. It made some kind of sense, I guess, but I just didn't like the ring of it.
I always was nervous about how tight he got with NFL Commissioner
"I don't think I've done too badly for my members this way," he said.
Taking care of retired and indigent and disabled veterans is a complex issue, volatile, emotional, clouded by accusations on both sides. There's no question the players' pension has been a joke for many years. And there's no question there's a human aspect that must be addressed, if not legally then out of plain decency.
Once I asked my father about this, when the older veterans were demonstrating against the union for a share of the benefits. My father was a union leader for more than 50 years.
"How far back can you go?" he said. "How many non-union members from the old days can you cover? All you can try to do is appeal on a human level, and try to treat the most severe need cases first."
I don't want to make this a treatise on labor-management politics. Gene Upshaw fought his way up from a poor kid working in the cotton fields in Texas to one of the most powerful figures in sports history. Whether you agreed with him or not, the achievement was remarkable.