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Robstown TX 1
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Lake Tahoe CA 1
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Full Name:
Eugene T Upshaw 2
Birth:
Robstown TX 1
Male 1
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15 Aug 1945 2
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Lake Tahoe CA 1
Cause: Pancreatic Cancer 1
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20 Aug 2008 2
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Gene Upshaw, N.F.L. Union Chief, Dies at 63

  They called Gene Upshaw the Governor because he carried himself like a leader from the time he arrived in the N.F.L. from the tiny Texas College of Arts and Industries.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Gene Upshaw was a guard for the Raiders for 16 years, and he played in three Super Bowls.

 

 

For 15 years, he was such a bedrock of the Oakland Raiders’ offensive line that he became the first player used exclusively at guard to be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And in an extraordinary second act, for 25 sometimes contentious years, he led the players union through the tumult of a strike, the gambit of decertification, the victory of free agency, an explosion in player salaries and the debate over provisions for retired players.

Late Wednesday night, with his union preparing for another contract negotiation with owners, Upshaw died at age 63 of pancreatic cancer. The union confirmed his death Thursday. His death stunned the N.F.L. because almost nobody knew he had been ill. Upshaw had appeared so gaunt at the recent Hall of Fame induction ceremony that some of those who saw him worried about his health. Upshaw was found to have cancer only last Sunday, when his wife took him to the hospital while the family was on vacation.

His death was so unexpected that earlier this week, the union had scheduled a news conference for him on Sept. 4 to discuss labor issues. Upshaw died with his wife and three sons beside him at his home in the Lake Tahoe region of California. At Giants practice Thursday, the team had a moment of silence in his honor before practice began.

“It’s devastating,” said Jeffrey Kessler, the union’s outside counsel.

On Thursday, the union’s executive committee voted unanimously to appoint Richard Berthelsen the interim executive director. Berthelsen is the union’s longtime general counsel and was a member of the negotiating committee for 37 years, during which he grew close to Upshaw. He will probably remain in the position until the union’s annual meeting in March and perhaps longer, until a new contract is negotiated. Among the former players who could seek the job are Trace Armstrong and Troy Vincent, both of whom have been active in union issues.

The negotiations are expected to be difficult. In May, team owners opted out of the current collective bargaining agreement, forcing negotiations to avoid playing the 2010 season without a salary cap and having a work stoppage in 2011.

“Losing him is like losing a chunk of myself,” Berthelsen said by telephone. “The game is better off for him having played it, and it’s better off for him having led the union than it would have been with any other single individual.”

Born in 1945 in Robstown, Tex., Upshaw picked cotton as a child, and he played just a year of high school football. But he earned N.A.I.A. All-American honors and was the Raiders’ first-round pick in the 1967 draft. He became a dominating guard when Oakland was at its zenith and is the only player to appear in three Super Bowls in three different decades for the same team. He played in 217 games and in many of them he anchored the left side of the Raiders’ offensive line with the Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell and the Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper.

“They basically ran to the left, if they ran 30 running plays, 28 of them were going to be that way,” said Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy, who was a member of thePittsburgh Steelers at the time. “I don’t know if you can put three better players together, ever, than those three guys.”

The former Raiders coach Tom Flores said the qualities Upshaw displayed in the locker room — confidence, intelligence and an outgoing, upbeat personality — made his ascension to union chief predictable. “He became a politician in the classroom,” Flores said in a telephone interview.

In 1980, Upshaw was part of a core of veterans that Flores turned to in order to bring the team together. After missing the playoffs a year earlier in Flores’s first season as coach, the Raiders were 2-3 heading into a game against the San Diego Chargers, whom they trailed by two games.

“I said, ‘You have to take care of the locker room for me,’ ” Flores said. “ ‘I need your help.’ ”

The Raiders won that game, 38-24, and went on to win that season’s Super Bowl.

But Upshaw’s power as the first African-American head of a major players union ultimately eclipsed his playing career. Drawn to politics early in his career, he became the head of the players association in 1983 at a time when the union was in dire financial straits.

“He built that organization from the ground up, and he fought fights all the way,” Armstrong said.

In 1987, the players struck, which led to games with replacement players. By 1993, Upshaw and the former N.F.L. commissioner Paul Tagliabue had negotiated a deal that gave players the right to free agency in exchange for a salary cap.

It was a landmark decision for the N.F.L., assuring a measure of competitive balance, starting a period of sustained labor peace and helping to send revenues and player salaries soaring. The salary cap is $116 million per team this season and, according to owners’ figures, players will be paid a total of $4.5 billion this season. Upshaw recently said that if the league ever played a year without the cap, he would not sell it to the players again.

But his greatest achievement as a labor boss was the establishment of free agency, which granted football players the same freedom of movement that players in other sports already had.

For years, Upshaw had been accused of being too close to Tagliabue, although Upshaw’s history as a player increased his currency with active players when he explained details of new deals. But before the last contract extension was approved in March 2006, Tagliabue had to ask Upshaw for a postponement to the start of that season’s free agency period to buy more time after negotiations broke down. Upshaw gave the owners 72 hours. Just after the clock expired, owners approved a deal that gave players 60 percent of revenues. Owners found the deal so favorable to players that it became untenable for them just two years later.

“If that’s what happens when you’re too close, I recommend everybody be too close,” saidRobert K. Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. “If anybody got an edge in that deal, he got it. It’s the reason we had to opt out of the arrangement. It just goes to show you people can be nice and cooperative, but that doesn’t mean you’re co-opted.”

Tagliabue said in a statement: “In both careers, if you hit him in the head, he could hit you back twice as hard — but he didn’t always do so. He was very tough but also a good listener. He never lost sight of the interests of the game and the big picture.”

In recent years, Upshaw came under withering criticism from a vocal band of retired players who believed he had not done enough to protect their interests, particularly those of players with health problems. Berthelsen said he believed Upshaw was hurt by the criticism, and Upshaw sometimes seemed frustrated as he tried to make the case that he had secured more assistance and benefits for retirees than anyone else had.

Upshaw’s public responses were often impolitic: he sometimes told reporters that he did not work for the retired players, and he once famously said of the Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, one of Upshaw’s most consistent critics, “I’d like to break his neck.”

“Upshaw carried that Oakland Raider intimidation all the way to being the union leader he became,” said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker. “That’s unfortunate, because he left a lot of guys out. He didn’t take care of the old guys. You want to feel sorrier than you do. It’s a mixed feeling that I have today.”

In April, Baltimore Ravens kicker Matt Stover e-mailed a plan to other union members to identify a successor to Upshaw and to potentially force Upshaw out by next spring, a year before his contract was to expire. Stover later said he was trying to get the union to prepare for the future, and other active players criticized Stover.

Upshaw’s response was typical for him: proud, stubborn and unmistakably blunt. He vowed that he would never leave his post until the next labor deal was done. It was months before Upshaw would learn he was dying. And as union leaders struggled with their grief Thursday, they began to prepare for the first round of talks without him.

Raider star later led NFL players union

Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders who led the National Football League Players Assn. through a strike and into an era of labor stability and soaring salaries, died only days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the union announced Thursday. He was 63.

Upshaw died Wednesday night at his Lake Tahoe home, according to a statement on the players association's website.

"We are deeply saddened and shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of our leader, Gene Upshaw," the statement said. "Gene learned he was sick just this past Sunday and he died with his family at his side."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that 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."

Upshaw's death comes just months after NFL owners unanimously voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. The move raised the specter of the first player strike since 1987 -- a strike that occurred with Upshaw at the helm.

Absent an agreement by 2010, a work stoppage could occur in 2011.

"Gene Upshaw's death creates a perfect storm of two huge issues for the union," said Harley Shaiken, a labor law professor at UC Berkeley. "First, Gene Upshaw defined the players union over decades, and now he's gone. Second, even with him at the helm, it would have been a difficult, tough set of negotiations. Without him, it's going to be an even tougher challenge."

The union Thursday appointed general counsel Richard Berthelsen as acting executive director.

Eugene Thurman Upshaw Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1945, in Robstown, Texas. He joined the Raiders in 1967, drafted as a 6-foot-5, 255-pound rookie out of Texas A&I, now Texas A&M-Kingsville.

Playing in the old American Football League and the newly merged NFL, Upshaw was a dominant blocker during the Raiders' Northern California heyday, appearing in seven Pro Bowl games and winning championship rings in Super Bowls XI and XV. He appeared in 307 consecutive preseason, regular-season and postseason games.

In a 2007 interview with The Times, Upshaw said he became active in union politics in part because of a contract dispute. As a rookie, he signed a contract that was guaranteed even if he was cut from the team -- but such a deal was never offered again after the AFL merged with the NFL.

"After the merger I never had another, I could never get another no-cut contract," Upshaw said. "And I believed that if someone signed me to a contract, they should be required to pay me."

Upshaw also told of a negotiating session with former Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm, who said, "You guys are cattle, and we're the ranchers. And ranchers can always get more cattle."

He said he had toyed with the idea of writing about his union activities -- quipping that the working title was "The Last Plantation."

He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, the same year he led union members on a strike that led owners to bring in replacement players. Upshaw subsequently defended the strike as necessary to prepare the groundwork for a lucrative, seven-year collective bargaining agreement signed in 1993 that included free agency and a salary cap.

The contract tied player salaries to a percentage of league revenues. This year's players will be paid $4.5 billion, according to figures provided by owners, and each team's salary cap is at an all-time high of $116 million.

And, since 1994, the NFLPA has benefited financially from Players Inc., a lucrative for-profit venture.

"If you look at the history of the NFL you're going to find out that he was one of the most influential people that the league has known," John Madden, who coached the Raiders during much of Upshaw's playing career, said in a statement. "He did so much, not only for the players but also for the owners, the teams and the game of pro football."

Added Raiders owner Al Davis: "Gene Upshaw's career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled. He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known."

Yet in recent years, critics had accused Upshaw of being too cozy in his dealings with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whom Upshaw counted as a friend. HBO's Bryant Gumbel, in a 2006 segment of "Real Sports," called Upshaw a "personal pet" of Tagliabue, criticizing what he saw as Upshaw's unwillingness to pursue guaranteed contracts that other sports leagues offer.

Doug Allen, who for years ran Players Inc. and now is executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, disagreed with such critics.

"When Gene thought it was appropriate to be partners with the league, that's what he did," Allen, a longtime personal friend of Upshaw, told The Times earlier this year. "But when Gene sensed there was reason to be adversarial or be in conflict with the league, he was never afraid to assert the interests of the players over that of the league."

Upshaw also had drawn fire from a vocal cadre of NFL retirees, including former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, who said the union had failed to improve their pension and retiree healthcare benefits.

Last year, as tensions between the two camps rose, Upshaw found himself before a congressional committee -- and got into a verbal duel with former NFL player Joe DeLamielleure.

DeLamielleure, who met with Upshaw during the Hall of Fame game ceremonies earlier this month in Canton, Ohio, voiced sympathy for Upshaw's family.

"I have no personal animosity toward Gene," DeLamielleure said. "We don't see eye to eye, but it was a disagreement. Those things happen, and they're immaterial at a time like this. Gene cared deeply about his job, and he did lots of good work for his current players."

DeLamielleure said he and other Hall of Fame players noticed that Upshaw had lost weight, but that there was no indication he was ill. "Gene always was working out, he was tremendously fit," DeLamielleure said. "I just figured he was kicking the workouts up another notch."

Upshaw is survived by his wife, Terri; and sons Daniel, Eugene Jr. and Justin.

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