I never believed in ghosts. So when I was told they were out there moaning in the field, my response was no different than yours, no doubt, would be. I rolled my eyes and laughed.
For nearly two years I ignored strange sounds. I spent weekends following the quests of the mighty Colts and then the perfect Patriots, weekdays diverted by sagas of quarterbacks who drowned dogs and cornerbacks who showered 81,000 dollar bills on naked dancing girls. I'd just turn up the volume on game days, make the collisions grow louder.
But then one night, when the strange noises grew insistent, I ventured outside. It took a moment for my vision to adjust to the dark. But there they were. A horde of ghosts pursuing a tall, solitary figure.
Conrad Dobler was near the front of the charge; how could I not remember him? Even with his hair turned white, his legs hobbled by five knee replacements, the old St. Louis Cardinals guard delivered a helmet-first shot. "Some people have no conscience," he snarled, "and he's one of them."
February 4, 2008
Then came a neck-snapping tackle from an old Baltimore Colts safety. "We have no interest in working with a man of his morality," said Bruce Laird. "He is a nonentity.... He means nothing to retired players."
On came another ancient guard, a former Buffalo Bill with a savage forearm shiver. "I won't stop until that bastard's gone or in jail," said Joe DeLamielleure. "He's a disgrace to every player, past and current."
Next came a creaking running back and a quarterback, one high and one low. "He is nothing more than a pawn," howled Mercury Morris, the former Miami Dolphin. "This is a scam. It's always been a scam and always will be a scam." Ex--Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini's hit was swift and brutal: "He makes me sick."
Then it grew worse. One of the eldest ghosts, a onetime Cleveland Browns cornerback, arrived like a missile and administered the lowest blow of all. "A habitual liar," Bernie Parrish hissed, and then demanded to know why the man wasn't a suspect in the unusual death of his ex-wife.
Finally I caught a better glimpse of their target, the tall, impervious one who just kept trudging onward. The thick padding and tape wrapped around his long arms and hands, as if he were a mummy, sparked my memory.
It was Gene Upshaw.
I heard a crowd roar. It occurred to me that I'd drifted into the unlikeliest sort of ghost story. Everyone was rooting for the ghosts! It was almost impossible not to. Creeping along the sideline on a walker, bent at a 45-degree angle, was the alltime great Oilers running back, Earl Campbell. Confused by foggy memory, neck locking up from damaged vertebrae, advancing on an artificial left hip was Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys safety Mel Renfro. Dialing his wife because he couldn't remember where he'd parked the car was former All-Pro Carolina Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene. Out of a Maryland homeless shelter, trying to squeeze by on his $400-a-month NFL pension was O.J. Simpson's former blocker, Bills tackle Donnie Green. Enough. There were just too many of the hobbling and homeless, the broke and disoriented, to identify them all.
How had it come to this? I drew nearer. The ghosts were eager to explain.
For three decades, from Pop Warner to retirement, they'd been groomed to spit at the pain, which was ever-increasing as the colliding bodies grew larger and faster, and they'd soldiered on in silence for years after they'd faded away. But then came the day when the consequence of all those head-ons, all that pounding on all that green pavement called artificial turf, demanded its reckoning. The mornings when they awoke and realized they could barely get up ... or didn't even want to. The multiple knee and hip replacements, each one carving a year of recovery time out of their lives; the depression, vertigo, Alzheimer's and thoughts of suicide, which some doctors linked to the multiple concussions they'd suffered; the spiraling medical costs and the realization that neither their pension nor their disability plan—if they even qualified for it—could possibly keep pace, had combined to overwhelm them.
Yes, many of their predecessors had carried such torments to their graves, but that was before $1,280 CAT scans and $2,280 brain MRIs, before the Internet had provided former players a forum to compare plights and emerge from their isolation, before the advent of unfettered free agency and guaranteed shared revenue in the 1990s had made the current players and their benefits plan far richer ... and the disparities between the old and new warriors so striking. The ghosts sat there on Sundays, watching all that glitter, pomp and money, listening to old comrades who'd escaped with their glibness and good health trade quips on the screen.
My heart went out to them. I'd whooped over their collisions; probably you had too. Maybe they were our ghosts. But my fascination kept turning to their unflinching prey.
Why were they stalking him instead of their old employers, the wealthy heirs and barons of commerce who had owned their teams and their sport? Why Gene Upshaw, their union's executive director for 25 years, their league's All-Pro guard in the 1960s and '70s with the Oakland Raiders—one of them? He was the character I'd never seen in any horror tale. The haunted one who refused to be spooked.
It was 37 years ago that he'd started wrapping himself. He'd begun, in the fourth year of his Hall of Fame career, with a pair of work gloves and elbow pads, overlaying them with a single roll of half-inch tape from his fingers nearly to his jersey sleeves. Then he'd upped it to two rolls per arm, then three. He'd begun slicing the cardboard tubes that the tape came in, fitting one half over each arm for more protection before starting the wrapping, then adding a fourth roll of tape, two inches wide, over all that. I remembered him leading those leftside sweeps alongside his fellow All-Pro and best pal, tackle Art Shell, running over defenders without breaking stride, his beard and Afro jammed inside that silver helmet, those two long white clubs swinging from those stevedore shoulders, dangling frayed padding and tape. "Sometimes I think it's still on him," a friend of his, Neil Grasso, muses. "He never took it off."
He'd needed it, all through the trench wars with all those multimillionaire owners in the '70s and '80s, when he rose to NFL Players Association president. Needed it when negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement nearly came to blows. Needed it when Cowboys president Tex Schramm, at a meeting over the dangers of artificial surfaces, thundered, "If we tell you to play on concrete, you'll play on it!" Needed it when Schramm cried, "You're the cattle, we're the ranchers. And we can always get new cattle!"
He was an old Raider, used to being one of the bad guys, and an offensive lineman, conditioned to withstand punishment. So that's what he did when the haunting began two years ago, ignoring the retired players' shrieks. He and Harold Henderson, the league's executive vice president of labor relations, conferred and agreed: The loud and bitter ones' numbers were relatively small; some of the ailing old-timers, like Renfro, blasted no one. It would all blow over.
Mistake. The noisy ones' numbers and media skills grew. They'd tapped a vein, the anguish of everyone who has spent hours getting refusals and runarounds from medical insurance companies and HMOs. They targeted Upshaw. As unspookable as Union Daddy seemed, he had to be jumpier than Corporate Granddaddy, the NFL. The battle grew fierce and finally—just as it would in the third or fourth quarter during Upshaw's playing days—his perfect pregame wrap job began to lose its adhesion. Loose ends began to dangle that the ghosts could snag and use to unravel him.
Two were his own quotes, when his anger at all the head slaps finally spilled. "The bottom line is I don't work for [retired players]," he told The Charlotte Observer in January 2006, responding to DeLamielleure's cries against him and their benefits. "They don't hire me and they can't fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That's who pays my salary. [The retirees] say they don't have anybody in the [bargaining] room. Well, they don't and they never will. I'm the only one in that room. They don't even have a vote."
Literally, his words were correct. Labor law dictated that a union—unless management waived the restriction—could bargain only for current employees, not retired ones. But the connotations were disastrous, and the recounting of that quote in newspapers and on the Internet made it seem as if the mummy were taunting the ghosts again and again.
DeLamielleure kept banging. "The only guy who's been in power longer than Gene Upshaw is Fidel Castro, and he thinks he's done a great job too," he said. "We need the government to step in and clean up this act. Nobody thought a guy who'd played with us would throw us under a bus."
Upshaw flared again, this time to the Philadelphia Daily News. "A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I'm going to invite him to dinner?" he growled. "No. I'm going to break his goddam neck!"
Lord, did DeLamielleure and the ghosts make hay with that one. They sprayed it across cyberspace, along with DeLamielleure's claim that his family feared for his life.
They got hold of Upshaw's union income for the year ending on Feb. 28, 2007: $6.7 million! A few months later, when they persuaded Congress to call a hearing on their plight, Upshaw didn't show up. He was vacationing in Europe.
Now there was tape dangling everywhere for the ghosts to grip and rip. They ravaged him in the media, they got a second congressional hearing, they paraded their most piteous in a series of press conferences. One of Upshaw's key lieutenants, regional director and former New York Jets running back Clark Gaines, shook his head in disbelief. "I've never seen such hatred spewed at one person," he said.
I looked around. The ghosts, for the moment, were gone. I asked the mummy if he'd sit down and unwrap some more.
He opened a desk drawer, rifled through it, then opened another. No, he really didn't have time for this. Each morning at seven he grabbed The Washington Post, a banana and a coffee, and headed to his office in downtown Washington, skipping lunch to work till 9 p.m., running to airports to address the active players in team meetings at the NFL's 31 cities and catching red-eyes home so he could pack a dozen more work hours into the next day, a job he'd been doing longer than any other sports labor leader in American history. He was a 62-year-old man—two years from his retirement after a career in which he'd won for his players 60% slice of the revenue of the world's richest sports league—who had been blindsided in the final moments of the game, and somewhere in this damn desk there was a piece of information that would help prove that he....
He came upon his screwdriver, hammer, pliers and drill instead. He'd been installing coat hooks for his colleagues, hanging photographs in the union's new offices, and a few days back had repaired his office toilet. Maybe he was a stonehearted, stonewalling, pension-plundering fat cat. But I'd never seen one of those do his own plumbing.
He'd grown up in dusty little Robstown, Texas, in a house with no running water, outhouse out back, all three sons packed in one bedroom. Churching all day Sunday at Mount Zion Baptist, schooling every weekday in a four-room building, cotton-picking every summer day from age seven, when he could barely see over the stalks. At 6:30 a.m. a jobber would pull up in his pickup, and Gene—along with his brother Marvin, younger by a year and a half—would join the three dozen men and women sardined in the back. He'd trudge down rows he couldn't see the end of, beneath a sun he could escape only by flopping under a trailer at lunch break, cracking open the prickly cotton bolls and stuffing the white fluffs into his burlap sack until dusk to earn money—a buck twenty-five per 100 pounds—for his school clothes. His father, Eugene Sr., a laborer at an oil refinery, would check the numbers etched in the boys' notepads each evening, measuring them against the weekly target he'd set. "Hmmm," he'd grunt. "Gene got 200 pounds today. Marvin only got 125."
Dad loomed everywhere. He was unofficial arbiter on the black side of Robstown, eventually a city council member, the boys' Little League president and their home-plate ump; save your breath, Gene learned on the mound or in the kitchen, if you didn't like a call. Eugene Sr. didn't hug or crack jokes. He cracked the belt. Even in church, hauling you into the room beside the altar, with the whole congregation wincing to your wails. Gene figured out the deal by age six—"You just didn't challenge him"—and felt the belt's fullest wrath just once thereafter, at 12, when he inked his name onto the outer edges of the new church hymnals. Marvin whooped when it finally happened. "Fools' names and faces are always seen in public places" were the words Dad whipped into Gene.
Gene became a junior deacon, choir singer, baseball team captain, peacemaker and problem solver, a lower-case Daddy. Marvin became Cain, trying every taunt in his arsenal to make Abel crack. "But you can't argue," says Marvin, "with someone who won't argue," so he'd settled for his thrills on the line of scrimmage. At every level—in practices against each other as Robstown High teammates, in college when Gene's Texas A&I Javelinas took on Marvin's Trinity Tigers, and in the pros when the Raiders played the Kansas City Chiefs—Marvin, a defensive end, would tap the teammate who lined up across from his brother, motion to him to trade places ... and then tee off on Gene before the snap. Marvin would get penalized. Gene would shrug and shake his head. "I'd say, 'Just keep doing it,'" Gene said. "It didn't hurt. You can't hurt me. It's just a stupid play. I'd never let Marvin know if he got my goat. You never get that privilege."
Marvin got all the piss, vinegar and early growth spurt. He was the high school star. Gene was still mucking on the B team through his junior season, schlepping the first-down chains on Friday nights. He didn't like contact, playing football only because a buddy did. His dream was to pitch in the bigs.
A few months after Gene graduated, carrying $75 from his dad for tuition, he hitchhiked 24 miles to Texas A&I. The football coach, former NFL halfback Gil Steinke, noticed him watching the morning practice of August two-a-days. Gene was still only 6-foot and 200 pounds. "Why don't you go get a uniform and come out this afternoon?" Steinke asked.
Gene still has no clue why he replied, "O.K." Within three days he had a scholarship. Within a year he stood 6'5" and weighed 260. Steinke kept trying to make a defensive lineman out of him and fumed when he couldn't get Gene to make a tackle. But flip him to the other side of the line, and could he ever fight one off. He began to relish the teamwork and glimmer, off in the flat dusty distance, of an exit from life in a refinery or cotton gin.
He jumped from a projected third-round pick in the 1967 NFL draft to a first-rounder after proving he could handle the blue-chip behemoths in the Senior Bowl as well as he had the NAIA galoots. Then he recoiled after Al Davis and the Raiders selected him. No, Gene told them, he'd heard about the rowdy players out there and whispers of racial tension among them. He wasn't going.
At each major threshold of his public life—his entries into college football, the NFL and the union—he crossed with cold feet. Davis persuaded him to give the Raiders a chance. Cornerback Willie Brown, Oakland's player rep, talked him into joining the union after he'd refused during his rookie year. Somehow, the guy on the fringe always ended up at the core. Upshaw became the Raiders' alternate player rep in his fourth season, then their player rep and team captain.
Politics fascinated him—he would be appointed to the Alameda County Planning Commission—and a path within the union opened up before him. He became a member of the executive committee in 1976 and its president in '80. He was the one guy in union meetings listening to everyone, mulling every issue's effect on every other issue while other player reps ranted, and finally blurting, "Do you realize how stupid you sound?"
Davis kept importing players from way out on the edge, knowing Gene would pull them to the center. Knowing that the Governor, as teammates called him, would organize camaraderie nights every Thursday at a local watering hole and herd them when the edge called them back. "You didn't talk to Gene," says his old linemate Shell. "He'd talk to you. You heard him before you saw him. When he wasn't talking—get worried." Truth be told, he was remarkably personable for a mummy, often seeking the lowliest in the building—the janitors, line cooks and doormen—to shoot the breeze with. He was a treasure chest of old expressions, nuggets like, "You can wish in one hand and s--- in the other and see which one fills up."
He became the only man to play in Super Bowls in three decades, the anchor of what many still consider NFL history's best offensive line, then retired on his terms in June 1983, after a three-hour chat with Davis at a San Francisco restaurant.
His marriage to Jimmye Lee Hill-Upshaw—with whom he had one son—had ended, but he'd already found the woman who would become his second wife, Teresa Buich, a catering manager at an Oakland Hyatt where the Raiders held team events. He'd already paved the way, with all the years he'd served the union, for his second career: He'd replace Ed Garvey as executive director and become the only player and nonlawyer ever to take charge of a major sports union. Physically, he'd set himself up for his second life too. He was a freak, an offensive lineman who had jogged three miles after a two-hour practice, who'd suffered only a few busted fingers and a jammed clavicle on a football field in 15 years, and who shed 30 pounds within a few months of his retirement and kept it off for life, pounding out five- and 10-mile runs on a treadmill while everyone else was pounding down lunch.
He moved to D.C. and began his new life as leader of a unique labor force, 78% of whose members would be divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after their jobs—often because of injuries—had been terminated.
Another executive might have anticipated the trap the ghosts were setting: the feelings trap. Another executive, early in the crisis, would have called a news conference and issued press releases assuring everyone how much his heart went out to those suffering and how hard he was working behind the scenes to improve their lot.
But Upshaw's catalog of emotional experience did not contain that page. When his father's circulation went to hell in his 50s and doctors sawed off both his legs just below the knees, Eugene Sr. wouldn't brook sympathy or help. He drove himself to the hospital to get the second one lopped. He went right on driving and changing the brakes on his car; the only way Gene could help him was covertly. Even near the end, after the old man's Christmas Eve stroke at 74, he awakened from a coma, barked "Boy, get outta here" to Marvin at his bedside, went to the bathroom after his son left, then crawled right back into his coma and never woke up.
Upshaw's second mentor, Davis, declared war on death and decay, hurling hundreds of thousands of dollars and summoning experts from around the world to fight any disease that threatened a friend or associate—but always under a cloak of secrecy. That was the code Upshaw learned about dignity, pain and loss.
But now he was breaching it. He shut the tool drawer in his desk, opened another drawer and pulled out a folder. It was a file on Brian DeMarco, a former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman who said he'd been shot up with lidocaine to keep him on the field through an injury in the '90s, leading to spinal degeneration so severe that a titanium rod had to be inserted in his back, preventing him from working and three times leaving his family homeless when he couldn't get disability payments. Upshaw fell silent as he slid across the desk a photocopy of a $2,398 check that he had written to cover DeMarco's rent, then a $535.55 check to pay for DeMarco's moving company. Just several, Upshaw said, among nearly 10 grand worth of checks he had written out of the union's Players Assistance Trust fund beginning in 2006 with approval from the PAT board. And still DeMarco had skewered Upshaw in '07 for "stepping away from the guys he sweat with and bled with." DeMarco, Upshaw insists, never even filled out his disability papers. DeMarco countered that he had phone records for 128 unanswered calls to the union.
Until last summer, Upshaw had resisted his lieutenants' pleas to publicize the checks that he'd written to quietly help players in dire need. He ran his affairs out of a sealed vault, like his Dad and Davis, farming out no task—even leaky office commodes—that he didn't have to. He fetched his own photocopies and faxes, booked his own hotels and rental cars, typically left his staff unaware of his whereabouts, rarely answered his cellphone and mentioned nothing about his work, not even the haunting, to his wife when he came home at 9:30 ... and started cooking.
He cooked his collard greens, his chops and his chili the way he ran his union. If someone drifted in and looked over his shoulder, says his brother Marvin, Gene would pretend to sprinkle an ingredient into the pot, just to throw him off. "Cook does his cookin' and wants no one else in his kitchen," says Marvin. "He wants to feed everyone and know they're satisfied, but he doesn't want the recognition. He's more comfortable being the mother and father making it happen. He's the protector. He gets his strength from you needing him. Don't question him. It'll just slow everything down."
He'd clean it all up himself too. He'd be the charming host, the splendid storyteller when he and Terri threw a dinner party, then slip away when everyone else was still tittering over tequila shots and coffee, load up the dishwasher, scour the pots and counters and return to inform everyone it was time to shut it down. If they didn't, he did. He'd turn off the lights.
The Pope, his pals outside of football called him. Oh, they could've told the ghosts that they'd approached the Pope all wrong. Yes, he had access to wonderful things: to tickets and luxury boxes, Super Bowls and parties and nifty NFL paraphernalia. SWAG, his buddies Grasso and Norm Singer called it. S--- We Ain't Gettin'.
"SWAG is like the benefits issue," says Grasso. "You don't say to Gene, 'I deserve this' or 'I demand this.' That's the worst thing you can do. He decides when to give it out. You let the Pope take care of you. If these retired guys just did this behind closed doors, they'd get much more of what they want. All things flow from him. He'll come to you and tell you where you're going, and when you get there, he'll take care of you like a king. He loves to give. He's incredibly generous. But you don't question him. You don't challenge him. It's like he's got it all figured out in his mind."
That hermetic seal had its advantages. It consolidated Upshaw's power. The union virtually has to hire him as a consultant when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 in 2010, just for the four-decade encyclopedia on NFL labor-management history in his head and his cabinets—a filing system bewildering to anyone but him. But the hermetic seal has drawbacks too.
Carl Francis. He was the NFLPA's entire public-relations department, one man gasping to meet media inquiries about all the union's contractual and players' rights issues even before the haunting began. Francis couldn't possibly satisfy the rash of reporters calling about the retirees, driving even more media into the ghosts' camp. But Upshaw wouldn't send reinforcements onto the public battlefield. Fools' names and faces are seen in public places.
Why should he have to convince people that he hadn't threatened DeLamielleure's life? Everyone who knew Upshaw knew that he wasn't a violent man and that his remark was a figurative expression of anger. Why should he have to prove that he cared about the suffering of his peers? He'd won the NFL's Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award in 1980 for helping so many charities, and he'd written scores of personal checks for players' coffins and funerals, widows and orphans.
He'd had so little leverage, his first decade as executive director, to increase pensions. He'd rallied his union to picket lines that kept melting because players' careers were too brief for them make a long-term stand, and owners held the billy club of antitrust exemption. He'd led the association out of its dark ages—when it was $4 million in debt and he couldn't even cash his own paychecks—by calling a flea-flicker after the failed '87 strike, decertifying the union in order to strip the league of its exemption, then winning an antitrust suit that brought expanded free agency in '93 and the fattest guaranteed slice of the gross of any union in sports.
Television, which loved the prolonged labor peace and stability that ensued, rewarded it with staggering revenue increases, from a $420 million deal in the early '80s to the current $4 billion-plus package. The average player's yearly salary during Upshaw's tenure as union chief soared from $120,000 a year to $1.4 million, and the post-'93 players suddenly had sweet benefits and a juicy 401(k) plan. Upshaw became the most important black sports executive and most significant African-American labor official in the U.S. He remained as old school as leather hightops, but his new sackful of goodies, the locker-room card games he'd fall right into when he visited teams and the rap tunes he could reference—his treadmill iPod music—kept him plenty now with the new crowd, and the players thundered their affirmation of his 2006 extension of the collective bargaining agreement, 1,795 votes to five. "That's my approval rating," says Upshaw.
But that '93 shift in dynamics contained a hidden virus. It turned the union and the NFL into partners, in effect. It turned commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Upshaw into regular dinner mates instead of the combatants that Gene and former commish Pete Rozelle had been. It cast Upshaw, in the eyes of the ghosts, into the role of the insider, the preserver of the status quo, rather than the outsider clawing for disenfranchised players' rights. It meant that any increase in the retirees' benefits would come out of the 60% that had already been shoved across the table, from the owners' side to the current players', which had the potential to set one generation against the other.
It took 13 years for the virus to metastasize and wallop Upshaw. Oh, it was sickening for a man who'd been seen as a militant in the '70s and '80s to be called a "pawn" by his peers, and the "personal pet" of the commissioner by HBO's Bryant Gumbel. Galling, to click on the TV and radio and discover that the ghosts had found a bullhorn, Iron Mike Ditka, the old Chicago Bears tight end and coach, calling Gene "a fraud." Galling, to look up and see even a 90-year-old leaping on the dogpile, the attorney who led baseball's union from 1966 to '83. "Every league's union except the NFL's has chosen to hire professional leadership," said Marvin Miller, who had hammered MLB's owners for the best pension plan in all of sports. "The NFL Players Association hired a former player. You see the results."
Galling, to get flogged for missing the first congressional hearing, when he'd received notice of it just six days before and was about to leave on a long-planned family vacation with his wife and the two sons from that second marriage. Galling, to hear his income flung about as evidence of his fat-cat detachment, when about half of that $6.7 million came from onetime bonuses and left him with a base salary about $1 million more than any other major sports union leader.
Most galling of all, the effect of that fateful quote in which he said he didn't represent the retired players. When in truth, he said, he'd increased their pensions after each of the last four collective bargaining agreements, was carving $82,000 per year out of the average current player's salary to improve NFL retirees' benefits, and he'd intended that quote to be targeted at DeLamielleure in particular, not retired players in general.
But the cogwheels of cause and effect could not be halted. John Wooten, a Browns guard in the 1960s, read that quote and decided that the moment, at last, had come. He called the ghost that even other ghosts crept softly around. He called Bernie Parrish.
Wooten read the quote to his old Cleveland player rep, the 71-year-old man who had presided over the union in the early '60s, turned over to the Justice Department his claims of NFL malfeasance and ties to organized crime—no charges were ever brought—and wrote a harrowing exposé of the league, They Call It a Game, in '71. Parrish's eyes narrowed. He canceled his cozy retirement from a successful second career as a hotel construction magnate and began a painstaking search of names, numbers and dates. He concluded that players from his era were getting shafted, but he had no legal recourse to force the union to increase their benefits. Instead, he filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Upshaw, the union and its Players Inc. merchandising arm of enriching union officers by diverting millions of dollars that he says should have gone to retired players for commercial use of their images—a suit that has been dismissed and refiled in federal court and which could compel Upshaw and commissioner Roger Goodell to testify under oath.
Parrish studied the disability plan, which was riddled with obstacles—many placed there by management, not the union—that often prevented the lame from qualifying, and he gave the ghosts their battle cry: "It's delay, deny and hope we die." And every week to 10 days, he e-mailed a scorching newsletter to a group list that numbered nearly 2,000, including disgruntled members of Gridiron Greats, Fourth & Goal and Retired Players for Justice. "They're throwing a handful of pebbles in their ocean of bulls---and expecting us to applaud as the ripples go away," he says. "We're not going away. They're going to write a check."
Then came his gut punch.
Parrish dug up an old story last year about the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of Upshaw's first wife in 2002, more than 15 years after their divorce. Jimmye Lee Hill-Upshaw's remains had been found on a rural property in Afton, Okla.—near a mental health clinic at which she was being treated—four months after she was reported missing. Investigators had found no evidence of foul play, yet Parrish e-mailed the brotherhood: "Why wouldn't they have at least questioned Upshaw?" he asked. "Why wouldn't they have given him a lie detector test?" Yahoo.com sports learned of the mass e-mail and published Parrish's suspicions.
"Anyone who'd bring the death of my ex-wife into this is lower than a snake's belly, and he's a liar," Upshaw seethes. "I've taken every body blow you can take. But it won't change who I am or what I do. My life and career will not be defined by it. The record will show that I did work for retired players, for every improvement they got.
"Sure, there are things about the disability plan I'd like to improve. I want the guys who deserve it to get it. But I'm limited in what I can do. The owners administer that plan as well—that's Taft-Hartley labor law. But do you see the retired players going after the owners?
"We never forgot the retired players. We never left them behind. Yeah, we've got a billion in the benefits fund, but we owe a f---ing billion [to all qualified retirees]. I've got that big-ass liability and I've got to pay for that. Ed Garvey drilled it into my head: If they all knock on the window for their pension, it's got to be there.
"Look at it this way. If you put a pile of money in a room with 10 people in it and ask them to split it up, do you think someone outside that room's going to get any of it? But that's what I do every new collective bargaining agreement. I'm the one who takes some of it from the 10 guys in the room and gives it to the guys that aren't even in the room—the retired players. I gave $147.5 million of the $571 million that went into benefits last year to retired players to increase their plan. That's what I've done! I don't know how many people would do that. It's not human nature. Sheeeeet. It just doesn't happen. It didn't happen when we were playing! But you can't turn this into a welfare state! It's not what it is!"
The tipping point had come. He'd never admit he was hurt, but his colleagues, who loved him, watched in sorrow as he closed the door and holed up in his office. If the ghosts were going to reach as high as Congress and as low as his ex-wife's autopsy to annihilate him, Upshaw decided, then he too would have to do the unthinkable.
He asked for help. He called ghost-busters.
That was them—the team from Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe—that I noticed huddling with Upshaw on the sidelines. They were experts at crisis management in trials, on Capitol Hill and in the court of public opinion.
They began working the aisles of Congress last summer, issuing white papers, contacting media, convincing Upshaw to explain his side. Many of the ghosts' pensions were so pitiful—as scant as the $126.85 a month of former Green Bay Packers cornerback Herb Adderley—because they'd taken a lump-sum payout early, wiping out 25% of their nest eggs, and begun drawing their pensions at age 45 instead of waiting until 62, then seen the sums cut in half each time they divorced. Once a retiree elected to start receiving his pension, as in virtually every other benefits plan, he couldn't qualify for disability no matter how dramatic his decline.
But how, the ghosts cried, could you compare a gladiator's benefits plan with that of a factory worker's or clerk's? Football was unique; the plan had to reflect that!
Yes, the ghosts had all returned to the field, now with an even fiercer vengeance. Why, that disability program was a Chutes and Ladders board, they screamed, designed to make them vanish through trapdoors. It was nearly impossible to get approved for total permanent disability, sneered Dobler; hell, Stephen Hawking himself, blowing through a tube to operate his laptop, would be deemed fit to work by the NFL's and union's mutually approved doctors. Anyone who'd played knew that football injuries often didn't manifest their severity until a man was years removed from the game—oops, sorry, Mr. Dobler, even though you've had five knee replacements and 13 leg operations and spent months in a Vicodin haze, you applied after that pesky 36-month window for a line-of-duty injury claim had expired.
A mere return telephone call, when you've left a message at the union looking for help in navigating the board? Forget it, the ghosts claimed. About as much chance as proving that your disability stemmed solely from that horse-collar tackle in '72, and not from something else.
So screw the Chutes and Ladders board, growled Dobler, who also cares for his quadriplegic wife. Just give us a decent pension like the major leaguers have and we'll pay for our own medical and assisted-living costs. Even if a retired pre-'93 player didn't tap his pension early, as Dobler—due to draw $48,000 a year beginning at 62—hasn't, NFL pensions paled next to baseball's; they were roughly one third.
Well, of course they paled, countered Upshaw. Where were these groaners in the '70s and '80s, back when the strikes he called kept caving in, back when baseball's union held firm and larded its pension pantry? Why, he said, it would cost $1 billion to bring the NFL's pension plan up to par with MLB's now! And here came Tagliabue out of retirement, chiming in his support. "The players' rallying cry back then was, 'We want our money now,'" said the former commissioner. "Gene's spent his life trying to convince players saying, 'Give me the money now,' to put that money into pensions."
Damn right they'd wanted it now, shrieked the ghosts. They were mayflies, their careers lasting an average of three years, here and gone before they could even grasp the issues, many believing the rumors circulating that the average NFL player's life span was 54 years—dead men don't draw pensions! No wonder 325 pre-'93 retirees had tapped theirs early!
But alas, said Henderson, the NFL labor relations negotiator, that tale turned out to be urban legend. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the early '90s found little difference between the mortality rates of NFL players and the general populace.
Each side smelled racism. "Seventy percent of the current players are black and 70 percent of the retired players are white," says Dobler. "So a cultural thing is going on here. The league that's 70 percent black is telling the league that was 70 percent white, 'Screw you.'"
"Race may be an issue," says Henderson, an African-American. "There's been too many comments from retired players about thugs wearing jewels and driving racy cars denying money to the guys who say they built the game and made it great."
But the active players, for the most part, voice a desire to help their destitute forebears, and when one of them—Chiefs offensive tackle Kyle Turley—donated his paycheck from the season's finale to help them, hundreds of others anted up.
Wonderful, says Upshaw, he's all for such generosity, but, he adds, when he made his presentation to the current players at team meetings last fall, showing how much he and the executive committee agreed to put aside for the ghosts' benefits plan, he often heard a rumbling of surprise that told him there are limits.
So let us talk to the current player reps, demands Laird, the former Colts safety who runs Fourth & Goal. "Upshaw refuses to allow me to," he says. "There's no communication going on. We have no voice, no vote, no representation. No one ever asks us what we want or need."
My head swam. Both sides, thanks to Parrish, were armed to the teeth with data they claimed proved their point. It would take a year and an army of auditors to determine whose numbers were accurate, and I had neither.
I wondered if somehow, instead, all the clanking of canes and walkers and titanium knees could cease for a moment, if all the black-and-white, good-against-evil banners could be removed, and a straightforward debate could commence, with the color gray invited. Because it would be a doozy, a Scruples question for the ages.
Why should current players, who pay an average of $235,000 a year for their own benefits, pay to increase the pensions of former players, when employees in few other corporations do? How could they not, with all that misery right in front of them, when they're earning such staggering sums? But don't most of us—windows up, doors locked, cellphones to our ears—roll right past misery every day? All those fans out there, howling for the dignity of their old heroes ... would they agree to take pay cuts to improve the benefits of employees who worked for their company 30 years ago?
How many years should a man have to work to receive a hearty pension? Is three years, the NFL's minimum to be vested in the plan, enough? Or six years, the average career of a vested NFL player? That's one seventh of an average American's working life. Who could expect to make a living wage for the rest of his life off that?
But these players went to war for our entertainment, took brutal risks. Don't we—doesn't somebody—owe them for all our weekly whoops and fantasies, for the cost of what has become our national religion? Perhaps a small percentage of ticket revenue, TV money or even astronomical profits from selling a franchise—the going rate is nearly a billion dollars—should be set aside to cover the players' wreckage. Or is their pain their karma, the harvest of personal obsessions that drove them into the arena?
Couldn't Upshaw and the ghosts, I asked, lead such a debate? Couldn't they sit down together and acknowledge the game's shadow side—the fears, vulnerability and pain that its broken vets carry—so that the exorcism could begin?
They looked at me as if I'd taken one late hit too many.
The Super Bowl was drawing near. I could guess what would happen. The NFL, having suffered plenty of collateral damage from the ghosts' salvos, had recently joined with the union to form a new group, the Alliance, to alleviate some of the misery. Upshaw, at his annual Super Bowl press conference, would extol the glowing health of his union and point to these new attempts to help the wounded vets, including a fund to cover joint replacements and a streamlining of the disability process.
The ghosts would hold their own Super Bowl press conference, under the auspices of Gridiron Greats. They'd auction off golf, poker and party time with the old pros to raise money for their casualties, and howl that the latest improvements are swell, but c'mon, the whole system needs overhauling.
The war would go on. Two ticking bombs—the increasing awareness of concussions' toxic long-term effects and the alarming rise of obesity among linemen—could make it more vicious still.
Hall of Fame Bears running back Gayle Sayers would attend the ghosts' press conference. He might not howl. He'd likely just keep killing Upshaw and the NFL softly, reminding everyone, "This is not how a family works."
Then Sunday would come, and my family would gather in front of the TV when the hitting started at 6:18 sharp. I wondered if I'd turn up the volume.