Gene Upshaw was the executive director of the NFL Players Association for 25 years, beginning in 1983
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association for the last 25 years, died on Thursday of pancreatic cancer.
At One Buccaneer Place, shocked colleagues said Upshaw's impact on the game and its players would live on for a long time.
"At a time like this, you start to remember all of the things that he did," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Ryan Nece, the team's player representative to the union. "You maybe took for granted some of the things that he was doing, and it's at this time now that you're able to reflect and say, 'Man, he was truly making a difference and we can learn a lot from what he was doing.'"
Upshaw played 15 seasons as a guard with the Oakland Raiders and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. Though he was one of the best players of his generation, he became even more important to the game after his retirement.
Upshaw took over as executive director of the NFLPA in 1983 and was instrumental in guiding the players to free agency, which began in a limited fashion in 1989 and expanded greatly with the landmark Collective Bargaining Agreement in 1993.
Buccaneers defensive end Kevin Carter, one of 11 players who sits on the NFLPA's executive committee, contends that all of today's players, and many more that will follow, owe Upshaw a debt of gratitude.
"Gene was a wonderful man," said Carter. "He did so much for NFL players as we know it. Our union, from where it's come before his involvement to now, is just an astronomical transformation.
"I don't care what you say, those transformations don't just happen because time passes on and things change and we're in a modern age. There had to be a process by which things got better in the NFL. The benefits and all the things you're entitled to as vested NFL player – there had to be a process by which all that came about. That process was headed up by none other than Gene Upshaw."
Upshaw had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer less than two weeks ago. He had remained intricately involved in the ongoing negotiations to fashion a new CBA, and his sudden death was startling and unwelcome news on Thursday.
"Obviously, that's a terrible day for us, a sad day," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "It really caught me by surprise. I know he's had a tremendous influence not only on me but on a lot of our players and people in this league. We're going to miss Gene Upshaw. He stood for a lot."
Shortly after the news of Upshaw's death was reported on Thursday, the NFL released the following statement from Commissioner Roger Goodell:
"Gene Upshaw did everything with great dignity, pride, and conviction. 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. He fought hard for the players and always kept his focus on what was best for the game. His leadership played a crucial role in taking the NFL and its players to new heights. Gene's tremendous love of the game also showed in his wide-ranging support of football at all levels. It is a sad day for the NFL, but Gene's positive impact and legacy will live on for decades to come. All of us in the NFL reach out with our sympathy to [wife] Terri and the Upshaw family."
Goodell and the NFLPA executive committee scheduled a conference call to discuss the topic of how Upshaw will be honored this fall by the league to which he devoted so much time, passion and energy.
"He gave 25 years of his life, and 15 or 16 years in a Hall of Fame career prior to that," said Carter. "That's dedication. We can only hope for that kind of dedication from the person who succeeds him. We've got a great staff of people there at the NFLPA office in D.C. and we will go on. We're not going to miss a beat in terms of business, only a minute to mourn the loss, and definitely our hearts go out to the family."
Added Nece: "The league is going to continue on, players are going to continue to play and games are still going to be played, but the difference that he made is definitely felt every day in our locker room and every day in the offseason and throughout the rest of our time as players in the league."