NFL's Gene Upshaw Dies

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Gene Upshaw, the longtime president of the NFL Players Association, has died. The former all-pro offensive lineman was a member of the Hall of Fame. He led the union into the era of free agency and negotiated one of the most generous contracts in professional sports.


An influential figure in pro football has passed away. Gene Upshaw died last night at the age of 63. Upshaw is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He won two Super Bowl rings with the Oakland Raiders and he became the head of the NFL Players Union. NPR's Mike Pesca has this remembrance.

MIKE PESCA: The offensive lineman's job is twofold: protection to prevent bad things from happening to the quarterback and possibility to create openings for the running back.

For 15 years, Oakland Raider lineman Gene Upshaw embodied the dual credo as well as anyone who ever played the position. He never missed a game until his final year, and then it was a quick step to the Hall of Fame.

Tom Flores, his coach with the Raiders, found that Upshaw was one of the key players he could always rely on.

Mr. TOM FLORES (Former Coach, Oakland Raiders): And he helped me in the locker room, along with Art Shell and guys like Ted Hendricks and those guys. Those are big-time leaders, and you don't see that kind of leadership in the locker rooms anymore because of something that Gene negotiated, the free agency.

PESCA: Yes, free agency is one of Upshaw's legacies as executive director of the NFL Players Association. The only other man to hold that title, Upshaw's predecessor, was Ed Garvey, who was impressed with the pull the former guard still exhibited.

Mr. ED GARVEY (Former Director, NFL Players Association): The owners tried to set up meetings of players, and Gene would go into those meetings and just take them over. I remember one where he literally picked up this management lawyer and turned him around and set him down and said, now you look at the wall so you don't see who's talking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GARVEY: I thought that whatever God had in mind when She or He was thinking about a football player came out looking like Gene Upshaw.

PESCA: As head of the NFLPA, Upshaw was still essentially providing protection and possibility. He inherited an organization that was $4 million in debt. Today, the NFLPA has assets exceeding $220 million. He led the players in strikes and led them to court in 1992 winning a legal battle that he correctly predicted would forever undo the league's free-agency restrictions.

Mr. GENE UPSHAW (Former Director, NFL Players Association): We've struggled for five, six long years to get to this point. We have now struck down the system in the National Football League, and it will never be the same again.

PESCA: But even as current players' incomes ballooned, the terrible costs of professional football on some former players grew unignorable. Last year, Congress held hearings as to the players' union disability plan, but Upshaw maintained that his hands were tied by his obligation to current players.

Upshaw was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only on Sunday and died last night. He leaves behind a wife and three sons. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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