Bitter Battle For the Old Guard (cont.)
Posted: Thursday January 31, 2008 1:56PM; Updated: Tuesday February 5, 2008 1:40PM
Politics fascinated him -- he would be appointed to the Alameda County Planning Commission -- and a path within the union opened up before him. He became a member of the executive committee in 1976 and its president in '80. He was the one guy in union meetings listening to everyone, mulling every issue's effect on every other issue while other player reps ranted, and finally blurting, "Do you realize how stupid you sound?"
Davis kept importing players from way out on the edge, knowing Gene would pull them to the center. Knowing that the Governor, as teammates called him, would organize camaraderie nights every Thursday at a local watering hole and herd them when the edge called them back. "You didn't talk to Gene," says his old linemate Shell. "He'd talk to you. You heard him before you saw him. When he wasn't talking -- get worried." Truth be told, he was remarkably personable for a mummy, often seeking the lowliest in the building -- the janitors, line cooks and doormen -- to shoot the breeze with. He was a treasure chest of old expressions, nuggets like, "You can wish in one hand and s--- in the other and see which one fills up."
He became the only man to play in Super Bowls in three decades, the anchor of what many still consider NFL history's best offensive line, then retired on his terms in June 1983, after a three-hour chat with Davis at a San Francisco restaurant.
His marriage to Jimmye Lee Hill-Upshaw -- with whom he had one son -- had ended, but he'd already found the woman who would become his second wife, Teresa Buich, a catering manager at an Oakland Hyatt where the Raiders held team events. He'd already paved the way, with all the years he'd served the union, for his second career: He'd replace Ed Garvey as executive director and become the only player and nonlawyer ever to take charge of a major sports union. Physically, he'd set himself up for his second life too. He was a freak, an offensive lineman who had jogged three miles after a two-hour practice, who'd suffered only a few busted fingers and a jammed clavicle on a football field in 15 years, and who shed 30 pounds within a few months of his retirement and kept it off for life, pounding out five- and 10-mile runs on a treadmill while everyone else was pounding down lunch.
He moved to D.C. and began his new life as leader of a unique labor force, 78% of whose members would be divorced, bankrupt or unemployed two years after their jobs -- often because of injuries -- had been terminated.
Another executive might have anticipated the trap the ghosts were setting: the feelings trap. Another executive, early in the crisis, would have called a news conference and issued press releases assuring everyone how much his heart went out to those suffering and how hard he was working behind the scenes to improve their lot.
But Upshaw's catalog of emotional experience did not contain that page. When his father's circulation went to hell in his 50s and doctors sawed off both his legs just below the knees, Eugene Sr. wouldn't brook sympathy or help. He drove himself to the hospital to get the second one lopped. He went right on driving and changing the brakes on his car; the only way Gene could help him was covertly. Even near the end, after the old man's Christmas Eve stroke at 74, he awakened from a coma, barked "Boy, get outta here" to Marvin at his bedside, went to the bathroom after his son left, then crawled right back into his coma and never woke up.
Upshaw's second mentor, Davis, declared war on death and decay, hurling hundreds of thousands of dollars and summoning experts from around the world to fight any disease that threatened a friend or associate -- but always under a cloak of secrecy. That was the code Upshaw learned about dignity, pain and loss.
But now he was breaching it. He shut the tool drawer in his desk, opened another drawer and pulled out a folder. It was a file on Brian DeMarco, a former Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman who said he'd been shot up with lidocaine to keep him on the field through an injury in the '90s, leading to spinal degeneration so severe that a titanium rod had to be inserted in his back, preventing him from working and three times leaving his family homeless when he couldn't get disability payments. Upshaw fell silent as he slid across the desk a photocopy of a $2,398 check that he had written to cover DeMarco's rent, then a $535.55 check to pay for DeMarco's moving company. Just several, Upshaw said, among nearly 10 grand worth of checks he had written out of the union's Players Assistance Trust fund beginning in 2006 with approval from the PAT board. And still DeMarco had skewered Upshaw in '07 for "stepping away from the guys he sweat with and bled with." DeMarco, Upshaw insists, never even filled out his disability papers. DeMarco countered that he had phone records for 128 unanswered calls to the union.
Until last summer, Upshaw had resisted his lieutenants' pleas to publicize the checks that he'd written to quietly help players in dire need. He ran his affairs out of a sealed vault, like his Dad and Davis, farming out no task -- even leaky office commodes -- that he didn't have to. He fetched his own photocopies and faxes, booked his own hotels and rental cars, typically left his staff unaware of his whereabouts, rarely answered his cellphone and mentioned nothing about his work, not even the haunting, to his wife when he came home at 9:30 . . . and started cooking.