March 05, 2009

As the contentious process of electing a new executive director of the NFL Players Association nears its conclusion in less than two weeks, Terri Upshaw, the widow of longtime NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, told on Thursday that she questions whether former union president Troy Vincent would be "the right candidate'' to fill the powerful job her husband held for 25 years before his death in August 2008.

In her first interview since Gene Upshaw died, Terri Upshaw repeatedly told she wasn't endorsing any particular candidate among the four men vying to succeed him as the head of the most influential players union in professional sports. But she acknowledged she had discovered a file kept by her husband that, according to union sources, was filled with numerous e-mails documenting Vincent's role in controversies that have surfaced during his candidacy for the executive director position.

The file, which Terri Upshaw came across as she was cleaning out her husband's Washington, D.C., office last month, is alleged to include e-mails dealing with both Vincent's improper December 2007 release of confidential information about agents to his friend and business partner, Mark Mangum, and Vincent's purported coup attempt of Gene Upshaw at last March's NFLPA annual meeting in Maui. The NFLPA last week hired outside legal counsel to investigate Vincent's role in the release of personal information, which Vincent has characterized as an inadvertent mistake.

Multiple sources within the union have told that just before Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer in August (less than a week after he had been diagnosed), he confided to them that he was planning to confront Vincent with the evidence he had collected linking him to the disclosure of the confidential information, the coup attempt and other matters that concerned Upshaw about the intersection of Vincent's business practices and his role as union president from 2003 to '08. Gene Upshaw was, according to the sources, planning to "expose'' Vincent to the NFLPA's membership during his annual summer tour of training camps in 2008 -- a trip he never took.

"I knew he had information [about Vincent], because I requested a while ago to be able to get into his office and collect his things,'' Terri Upshaw said in a phone interview Thursday morning. "I came across this file, and I turned it over to the NFLPA. He wasn't home strategizing with me what his plan was, but I think he was talking with his confidants and his people about how to go about the whole process of how to address and take care of some of these issues. I know in the summer Gene was having discussions with some people about these matters. I knew what it was about, even though I wasn't privy to the details. He wanted things to be fair and to be conducted the right way. Gene had a lot of close confidants and they know what he was going to do and what he wanted to do with that information.''

Vincent, an NFL defensive back for 15 seasons, is perceived as the odds-on favorite among the four finalists for the executive director opening. He has been considered a leading candidate to succeed Upshaw, even well before Upshaw's death.

The union's annual meeting will open March 14 in Maui, and it's there that the 32 team player reps will vote for a new leader among Vincent, ex-union president Trace Armstrong, Washington, D.C., attorney DeMaurice Smith and Los Angeles-area attorney David Cornwell, who just Wednesday emerged as an unexpected finalist when he got the mandatory three team reps to nominate him for the final balloting. Cornwell had been eliminated by the NFLPA's executive committee when the field was cut from nine candidates to five in January.

The election is seen as the most pivotal in NFLPA history, given the critical importance of the executive director position as the union faces the looming specter of difficult and protracted collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the NFL later this year.

It is that critical nature of this election, Terri Upshaw said, that prompted her to speak of what's at stake in the battle to replace her Hall of Fame-inducted husband, and to address what she says Gene Upshaw felt were the most important elements in choosing his successor.

"Without getting into endorsing a particular person, I can tell you how Gene felt about the quality of the individual who would someday succeed him,'' Terri Upshaw said. "I don't know how he would feel if Troy were to replace him. But I know the direction he'd want this organization to go in, and I don't know that Troy would be the right candidate for that.

"I know he'd want to say to the players, 'Really take a look at the issues and take a look at the candidates and the qualifications of the person going into that position. Look at someone's core values. Take it seriously. It's a serious job. And you need a serious person with the experience and the background to do the job that's needed.' ''

Asked if she felt Gene Upshaw had ever endorsed any one as a successor in their private conversations, particularly among the four finalists who are now vying for the job, Terri Upshaw said she never got such a pronouncement in so many words. Vincent was long seen as Upshaw's hand-picked successor, but the two had a falling out over the purported coup and barely communicated for much of last year before Upshaw's death.

"Gene didn't come out and say anything specific to me [about Vincent],'' Upshaw said. "But look at his actions. Sometimes what isn't said is kind of apparent too. Sometimes you don't have to say anything and that's stronger than any words you do say.

"I just know based on the time we spent together, and the confidence that Gene felt, he was closer with Trace. I know Gene felt very strongly about him. He may be the candidate who was closest to Gene. He spent a lot more time working with [Gene] than Troy. Gene didn't talk a lot about Troy. He just didn't come up a lot.''

Terri Upshaw said that she and Gene's three sons, Eugene III, Justin and Daniel, will not attend the NFLPA annual meeting in Maui this month, as they have as a family for years. But the four will return to Hawaii this month, spending time on the big island as has been the family's custom.

"We've been going to Hawaii as a family in March for 27 years, and we want to be there,'' she said. "It's part of our family's history. We're still hanging onto those times, and still trying to get through this. Maybe it'll help us heal a little more and move on. Every day is still a struggle. I lost my best friend, and my rock.''

Though not comparable, the union's task of replacing Upshaw has been a difficult process and fraught with controversy. But it's nearing completion. Terri Upshaw said she feels compelled to implore the union to choose a successor who brings many of the same skills to the job that her husband had.

"He believed in the union, and I know how passionate he was for his job, and for the cause of the players,'' she said. "I know it's down to the player reps, and I just hope they can take a look at the whole picture and make the right decision to move forward as the most powerful union in sports. I hope that job will be filled with someone who can approach the role like Gene did. He gave it everything he had.''

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