(courtesy of NFLPlayers.com) His big, booming voice was a familiar presence in the long halls of the NFL Players Association offices. Even when you couldn't see him, you could hear him coming. Perhaps intimidating if judged solely by his 6-foot-5 frame, for those who knew him, he was far from that.
When he approached your office or cubicle, en route to getting his morning cup of coffee, he was just as likely to discuss life's trivial matters as he was to discuss official work business. Despite his large stature in the world of sports, the man was as personable and approachable as they come.
Gene Upshaw, one of the most influential men in the history of the NFL, a visionary leader and the longtime Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, passed away Wednesday night. He was 63.
A powerful figure in American professional sports and an extremely successful head of the players union, Upshaw passed away at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. with his wife, Terri, and three sons—Eugene Jr., Justin and Daniel—by his side. He learned he had pancreatic cancer Aug. 17.
"Whenever a person loses their life, it is definitely a sad situation, especially a guy like Gene who has been a tremendous asset not only to the NFL but to the players," said Robert Royal, tight end for the Buffalo Bills and their player representative. "We lose a lot of knowledge, a great person, a great human being and someone who was leading in the right direction."
The tremendous work ethic which served as the foundation for great success later in life was ingrained in Upshaw as a young boy. With small-town Texas roots, Upshaw overcame modest upbringings which included a house without running water and summers spent cotton-picking all day, every day, in the unpleasant Texas heat. His stern-but-fair father, Eugene Sr., was the mentor and defining influence in his early life. No one crossed Eugene Sr.—and if young Gene did—rest assured, he'd learn his lesson.
A baseball star in high school, Upshaw never harbored boyhood dreams of playing in the NFL. Instead, he wanted to be a pitcher in the major leagues. It was only because a friend was on the football team that he decided to put on the pads and helmet in the first place. The core values of respect, perseverance and mental strength taught to him by his father carried over to the playing fields, and later set the stage for Upshaw's victories in his professional career.
Upshaw's "I'll do it myself" attitude was evident in his youth. Months after graduating from high school, Upshaw set off on his next step in life—college. Without glamour or much certainty about what lay ahead for him, he left his Robstown, Texas residence with $75 in hand and hitchhiked 24 miles before finding his new home at Texas A&I University.
A Man of the People
Despite experiencing success at every level, Upshaw never let it go to his head; he was never "too good" for even the most mundane task. Upon first arriving at the union, he built and painted his first desk, and throughout the years, it was common to find Upshaw hanging photographs in the union offices, spraying WD-40 on a squeaky conference room door, fixing someone's desk, installing coat hooks for co-workers, changing a colleague's tire or even repairing his own toilet. Yes, this man in his 60s—a leading sports executive with great power and influence—got on his hands and knees, literally, to fix his own plumbing. That's who he was.
"He would help various staff members in all kinds of ways. Of course, he never wanted anyone to know," said Veronica Jenkins, the NFLPA's graphics arts manager. "If you came to him with a problem, more often than not, he'd open his wallet, give his time, anything."
Perhaps Upshaw's style was best portrayed by the thoroughness and diligence he displayed during his annual visits to all 32 NFL teams. Upshaw viewed these team visits as critical opportunities for him to meet one-on-one with players and listen to their concerns. After his lengthy meetings with players at each team—which often spanned weeks and covered thousands of miles in travel—Upshaw was famous for catching a red-eye flight which would put him back in the office before the start of the next business day.
Upshaw truly set the standard, but his generosity cannot be overstated. Longtime staff members quickly recall times when Upshaw was on the road—visiting teams, conducting business in far-reaching parts of the country, spending days in New York for meetings with the league—and he would get word it was a beautiful day back in Washington, D.C. He'd make one phone call from wherever he was—"Shut the office down early," he'd say—and that was that. How many bosses do that for their employees?
Upshaw, the 1980 winner of the Byron "Whizzer" White Award for his outstanding contribution to team, community and country, was publicly known for his cunning tactics as a negotiator on behalf of the players, but he was just as skilled at creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere around the NFLPA offices. His ability to bring people together helped fortify a sense of "family" amongst active players and staff members which has existed for decades and will live on.
"He adored his family, he was a good friend to many and his staff at the NFLPA and PLAYERS INC (now NFL PLAYERS) loved and respected him," said Pat Allen, former Chief Operating Officer/Executive Vice President of NFL PLAYERS who worked at the players union for 33 years.
"He had a great sense of humor and his infamous 'Texasisms' will long be remembered. Right now he's probably saying, 'Shoot, what's the big fuss about? Y'all go on and have a party!' Even though he was a lousy dancer, he would be there with his dancin' shoes on! Those are some very big shoes to fill. I will truly miss him," Allen continued.
Upshaw's selflessness was not limited toward his staff, players or family members. Total strangers also benefited from his thoughtfulness.
In 1986, a newlywed couple from Manassas, Va. was at an auction store searching for furniture to go in their new home. Upshaw was there, too, so he sat next to Nettie and Marshall Stevens and struck up a conversation. After learning the couple could not afford a piece of furniture they really wanted to purchase, Upshaw came to the rescue. Without hesitating, he placed the winning bid, chipping in what the couple couldn't afford.
Still married, now with two daughters and a granddaughter—and with that same sideboard in their home—the Stevens forever cherish that memory of Upshaw and tell the story to anyone who will listen.
"I have to tell you, that at no time in my life have we had any experience like this," Nettie Stevens wrote to Upshaw. "To this, you will always be our hero. Struggling newlyweds would be so lucky to find a wonderful person as yourself to cross their path."
Honoring an Iconic Figure
Upshaw's indelible influence and enormous impact on the game will not be forgotten by players around the league, and his presence as a labor leader will be missed.
"To have someone of Gene's age and the way he carried himself, to all of a sudden receive a phone call that Gene has passed away was a huge shock to me," said Brian Dawkins, safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and member of the NFLPA Executive Committee.
Dawkins spoke for many when he praised Upshaw for the remarkable strides he made to improve the lives of players during his 25-year tenure at the helm of the players union. "From where the union started to where it is today is leaps and bounds. A lot of that credit has to go with Gene and what he stood for," Dawkins said. "He stood his ground on a lot of key issues. With the backing of the players, he was able to get us in a pretty good position. … He's left us in a very good position."
Mike Ornstein, marketing representative and President of The Sports Link, will never forget Upshaw's ability to bring his fellow teammates together at regular gatherings after practice during the 1970s. About 25 Oakland Raiders gathered three times a week in a nearby hotel to discuss non-football issues over drinks. For Upshaw, the leader of the group, it was about building camaraderie amongst the team in an organized way.
"I rank him in the top five men in the history of this game, and I don't know anyone who can sit there and dispute it," Ornstein said. "The one thing we always shared—what is going to be the hardest to find in replacing him—is the passion and love for the National Football League. The game meant more to him than his own personal gains."
With a passion to lead—and a greater passion to help players prosper—Upshaw always put his constituents first. A tireless worker who led NFL players to incredible gains during his tenure, the charismatic Upshaw was a football legend whose greatest contributions may have come after his playing career ended. He was respected by many as a man of compassion, conviction and certainty.
"Gene was a leader, mentor and friend to me and many others throughout his lifetime," said Kevin Mawae, center for the Tennessee Titans and NFLPA President. "As Gene would have wanted, the NFL Players Association will continue to move forward in making the NFL the greatest professional sports league in the country."
'A Heroic Leader'
When times were tough, it was Upshaw who would roll up his sleeves to get the job done. Throughout his long tenure, Upshaw, the consummate leader, did whatever it took to protect his players. He even had the courage to forego his own salary to protect the organization and its membership.
That generosity took many other forms, such as the numerous times Upshaw wrote personal checks, out of his own pocket, for scores of retired and active players in need. Behind the scenes, he made it a priority to help as much as he could. One such instance was when he gave $75,000 of his own money to a former Raiders teammate needing immediate medical care. No questions asked; the check was in the mail.
But Upshaw never sought out the media spotlight for his generosity; in fact, he shunned it. Out of privacy for the players he helped and their families, he didn't want recognition for doing what came naturally out of the goodness of his own heart. That wasn't how his father had brought him up. Sure, for many years he was the face and voice of the players, but he never stopped standing shoulder-to-shoulder with players. Despite his unquestioned leadership role, he remained one of them.
Upshaw served as Executive Director of the NFLPA for a quarter-century after his June 1983 appointment and worked diligently to enhance and protect the individual rights of players. From player strikes to Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations, Upshaw always acted with the players' best interest in mind—and he succeeded in doing so.
During the formation of the 1993 CBA, Upshaw successfully negotiated and gained free agency and a guaranteed percentage of the gross revenues for NFL players, kicking off the modern era of extended labor peace between the league and the union.
"Gene and I developed a close friendship that remained strong through the good times and some of the NFL's most difficult challenges," Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney said. "We worked very closely on key issues that allowed the NFL to maintain unprecedented labor peace. His biggest asset was his understanding of the business of the game, and you always knew that his concern for the game's best interests guided his actions."
Throughout Upshaw's tenure, the NFLPA experienced extraordinary growth as players received salary increases, better playing conditions and major improvements in their medical and retirement benefits.
"Gene's accomplishments for our union obviously speak for themselves, but for me it was that incredible personal touch he had with everyone he met," said NFLPA General Counsel Richard Berthelsen, who recently was named Interim Executive Director. "You'll hear wonderful, well-deserved compliments about him from players, owners and other notables. But you won't hear the hundreds of messages we've gotten from people who worked at his favorite coffee shop, his sons' school or the other places he visited in his daily life.
"They are all the same: 'He was always so nice to me.' And that was because they were just as important to him as anyone else."
In and around league circles, Upshaw was highly respected as a leader and successful negotiator. He also was known for his relentless determination and immense knowledge of the business.
"He was very tough, but also a good listener," former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He never lost sight of the interests of the game and the big picture."
In 2006, during the most recent set of labor negotiations with franchise owners, Upshaw secured nearly 60 percent of total league revenues for the players.
"The NFLPA had a heroic leader who gave the membership effective free agency, guaranteed monies effectively at 60 percent of football revenues, an effective and incrementally-increasing salary cap, and improvements in franchise and transition rules, default provisions and rookie contract lengths," said Tom Condon, a former union president and Upshaw's agent. "The NFLPA had a heroic leader who gave the union financial viability and institutional respect.
"I had a friend who I consider heroic, and I mourn his loss."
Upshaw's determination to increase the revenues of the NFLPA and its players extended off of the gridiron and into the marketing field. In 1994, he made the NFLPA a leader among players associations by making it the first to create a for-profit corporation for player group licensing. That company, National Football League Players Incorporated (known as NFL PLAYERS), is involved in marketing, licensing, sponsorships, content development, television and special events. Upshaw served as Chairman of the multimillion dollar company.
A Hall of Fame Career
Upshaw's impact on the NFL began when Oakland drafted him in the first round (17th player overall) in the first combined NFL-AFL Draft in 1967. He became a seven-time Pro Bowler at offensive guard and spent his entire pro career with the Raiders between 1967 and 1982. He is the only player in NFL history to play in Super Bowls in three different decades—the 1960s, 70s and 80s—and is considered one of the best offensive linemen the league has ever seen. In 1987, his first year of eligibility, he was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Upshaw is one of 61 first-ballot Hall of Famers in history.
Forever a fan and student of the game, Upshaw carried a mental rolodex which stored loads of dates and information about the NFL. He never forgot how to appreciate greatness on the field.
"Playing alongside of Gene was an honor and a privilege," said former Raiders teammate and close friend Art Shell. "He was a pillar of strength and leadership for our great Raider teams."
During his impressive 16-year career as a Raider, Upshaw was a team captain while serving as an NFLPA player representative and officer for 13 years. He was an alternate representative or player representative for the Raiders from 1970 to 1976. For the next four years, he served on the Executive Committee until he was elected President of the NFLPA, a post he held until 1983.
"The players have been truly lucky for the last 30-plus years to have had Gene as their leader and advocate," Allen said. "As a player in the Raider locker room and as a leader in the boardroom, Gene was fearless in his efforts to ensure that the players, both active and retired, were treated fairly. Even though he was larger than life, he only used the spotlight to further the interests of the players."
Remembering His Vision
Upshaw's life was characterized by his dedication to the sport and his professionalism on and off the football field. He leaves an unparalleled legacy and his vision will never be forgotten. It was his goal to ensure all NFL players, past, present and future, continue receiving what they rightfully earn.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, "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. Gene's tremendous love of the game also showed in his wide-ranging support of football at all levels. Gene's positive impact and legacy will live on for decades to come."
Gene Upshaw's vitality will always be felt at the NFLPA. The hallways won't be the same without that unmistakable physical presence, but his legacy looms large forever. The NFL Players Association and its entire membership mourn the loss of our leader.
Paying Tribute to Gene Upshaw
Countless people from around the league who came to know Gene Upshaw paid tribute to his legacy, leadership and immeasurable contributions to the sport of football. What follows is a sampling of quotes about his life, career and achievements:
"Hopefully, everyone in this locker room recognizes that they're a lot better for having Gene as their leader. He did so much. Every guy in this locker room can say they benefited from his leadership. The league has benefited from his leadership. Our game is better from his leadership. He is definitely going to be missed. We had a lot of great meetings. There were a lot of times when we obviously had to take care of work—it was a serious approach—but behind closed doors we would sit and laugh and talk. Really he is a player, and I think sometimes people forget that Gene Upshaw was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. He was one of the guys. You really couldn't get him to talk much about his Raider days. He would shed a little bit of light on it. Most Hall of Fame players let you know they're in the Hall of Fame. If you're around Gene long enough, obviously I remember because I remember watching him play, but he wasn't the type of guy that would always talk about his accomplishments. His main focus was the union, and that's what he lived for." —Tony Richardson, New York Jets fullback & NFLPA Executive Committee member
"We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and colleague, Gene Upshaw. Perhaps no person had as a profound and unique impact in sports as Gene Upshaw. He was a dominating force on the field as well as off the field. We hope that Terri and the family can feel the love and appreciation that is due to this giant of a man."
—Bruce Allen, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager
"Gene Upshaw was a good friend, an inspiring leader and a tireless and effective champion of players in the NFL. I can't imagine a world without Gene's larger-than-life presence. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone there (at the NFLPA). He was a giant, and we will all miss him." —Doug Allen, Screen Actors Guild National Executive Director & former NFLPA assistant executive director for nearly 20 years
"In his position representing the players, I felt like Gene was always very frank and fair when he came in and visited the club. He wouldn't come here to visit without wanting to sit down and talk for 15 minutes to see how our players were doing and what else was going on. How were they doing? How was I doing? A time didn't go by when he didn't do that. And I appreciated that. It's a big loss for the NFL community." —Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals head coach
"We are very deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Gene Upshaw. Gene Upshaw was very supportive in the formation and operation of the National Football Players Fathers' Association. He was gracious enough to accept in person our Living Legends Award in Miami in 2007. It meant a lot to us to have him show his support and give the wonderful comments and words during the ceremony. We wish to express our heartfelt condolences and prayers to his wife and family. He will be missed." —Samuel McNabb, Father of Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb & Founder/President of National Football Players Fathers' Association
"With Gene's passing the NFL has lost an innovator, players have lost their advocate, and I have lost a friend. A Hall of Fame player, Gene was also a hall of fame businessman and negotiator. He always had the best interests of the NFL players at heart, and that played a large role in building our league to the prominence it enjoys today. My prayers and the prayers of the Washington Redskins organization go out to his family at this sad time." —Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins owner "On behalf of the Philadelphia Eagles, I am very saddened and shocked to learn of Gene Upshaw's passing. Whether it was as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Oakland Raiders or as Executive Director of the NFL Players Association, Gene was a tremendous leader and a wonderful person. Gene always believed the best way to build the popularity of our sport was to craft a dynamic partnership between the players and the owners that served the best interest of the fans. We, as well as the entire NFL family, will miss his presence dearly and our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Terri, and their three sons." *—Jeffrey Lurie, Philadelphia Eagles owner *
"The Pro Football Hall of Fame is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of one of its own, Gene Upshaw. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Terri, and their sons, Justin, Daniel and Eugene Jr., during this time of sadness. Enshrined in 1987, Gene was a staunch supporter of the Hall of Fame, returning annually to welcome the newest class of enshrinees. He was one of those rare individuals who dedicated his entire life to the sport he loved and will be remembered for his many accomplishments both on and off the field." —Steve Perry, Pro Football Hall of Fame President/Executive Director
"I am deeply saddened today to learn of Gene Upshaw's passing. He is a man I have always admired and respected. Through hard work and perseverance, Gene accomplished so much in his life. He was passionate about the game of football and dedicated much of his adult life to improving the game, not just for the benefit of the players, but for the benefit of all our fans, too. His many on-field accomplishments earned him a place among the all-time greats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But his contributions to the game go way beyond the playing field. His union leadership has been one of the key factors to the exponential growth that the league and all of its players have enjoyed over the past two decades. Gene represented the players the way I would want to be represented: with understanding, integrity and a steadfast commitment to doing what was right for them and what was best for the game. On behalf of my family and the entire New England Patriots organization, I extend our sincerest sympathies to his wife, Terri, and the entire Upshaw family. Gene's legacy on the game will be lasting and his presence will be missed." —Robert Kraft, New England Patriots Chairman & CEO
"Gene Upshaw was a friend and someone I will miss dearly. Few men have made more contributions to the National Football League. I enjoyed working with Gene. He brought all of the competitive qualities of a Hall of Fame offensive lineman to the negotiating table. He cared about so many people, and he loved the game. All of the young men who play in the NFL today owe a great debt to Gene, and all of us who enjoy the success of the NFL will be forever indebted to Gene." —Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner
"We were all saddened to learn of Gene Upshaw's passing. I have great respect for Gene's unprecedented Hall of Fame career. I also admired Gene Upshaw the union leader for his leadership, intelligence and partnership during his 25-year career with the NFL Players Association. Most importantly, I admired Gene Upshaw the person. He was a true gentleman and his contributions to our great game—first as a high-character, highly-skilled player and later as the head of the players union—will never be forgotten. I extend my prayers for a wonderful man, a hero of the NFL and the entire Falcons family extends its deepest condolences to Gene's wife, Terri, and to his sons, Justin, Daniel and Eugene Jr." —Arthur Blank, Atlanta Falcons owner & CEO