No player in National Football League history had as much impact on both offense and defense as Gene Upshaw; on offense, as the Hall of Fame left guard for the powerful Oakland Raiders of the 1970s … then in defense, since 1983, of the best interests of the members of the NFL Players Association.
Upshaw died early Thursday morning at the age of 63. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer, which he reportedly didn’t even know he had until Sunday. As someone who lost a grandfather to pancreatic cancer in 1993 and visited with him during the bed-ridden last two weeks of his life, I find it unfathomable that anyone could get to within days of death from this disease without knowing something was seriously amiss.
Anyway, Upshaw’s legacy is mixed. Few will find any fault with his playing career – 11 Pro Bowls in 16 years – though former Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson came the closest to besmirching Upshaw when he eulogized that Upshaw “never got called for holding.”
But Upshaw’s second career, as the players’ union head, drew more criticism. In recent years, retired “old timers” had become distinctly more vocal about what they perceived as a lack of empathy from Upshaw in the struggle that many former players have had with medical bills and health care. Former Buffalo Bills guard Joe DeLamielleure may have been the loudest, alleging that Upshaw said he “doesn’t represent former players.”
Upshaw’s tenure endured other rough patches, particularly when the owners broke the union – decertified it – in 1987. The players had struck, canceling one week of the season, and ultimately worked without a collective bargaining agreement until 1989. (Makes one wonder what would’ve happened if the USFL had been able to hold out until this time and capitalize on its rival league’s best players suddenly without teams.)
But in the end, NFL players are making infinitely more money than they were in Upshaw’s day. To Upshaw’s credit, though, according to numerous testimonials given by a litany of former teammates – particularly on Sirius NFL Radio all day Thursday – always stressed benefits over salary.