Remembering Gene Upshaw
Gene Upshaw came into the NFL through a scam, and the guy scammed later became one of the most respected personnel men in the league. But in 1967 Ron Wolf was just a hard-working, 27-year-old super scout for Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders, and as the draft approached he knew he was going to have a war on his hands.
"I wanted Harry Jones, a halfback from Arkansas," said Wolf, who's famous for making the Packers trade, years later, that sprung Brett Favre from Atlanta. "Al wanted Eugene Upshaw, a guard from Texas A&I. We argued right up to the start of the draft, into the first round, actually. Finally Al threw his hands up and said, 'All right, dammit, you win. Call Harry Jones and alert him. Use the phone in the hall.'
"I went out to the hall phone. We had a radio hookup to draft headquarters in New York that day, with a loud speaker, and I could hear Pete Rozelle announcing the first-round selections. So I looked up Jones' number, and while I was dialing, I heard Rozelle on the loud speaker, 'In the first round, the Oakland Raiders select Eugene Upshaw, guard, Texas A&I.'
"All he did after that was get elected to the Hall of Fame."
People knew better to question the Raiders picks in those days. They were a team on the rise, and Upshaw, during his 15-year career, led them to three Super Bowls, two of them winners. The Raiders' locker room was one of the best in football, for characters. Everyone had something to say, and Upshaw, with a fine, understated sense of humor, and considerable depth underneath it, was one of the guys to whom you always headed when you wanted a quote or two.
I covered the team, off and on, during his entire career, 1967-81, but toward the end of it there was a new thrust. He had become active in union affairs, first as a player rep, then as a member of the NFL Players Association Board of Directors, then as the President and righthand man to Ed Garvey, the Executive Director.
The union went through some rough times in the early part of that era. It had little national support from the press. The prevailing opinion, as expressed by Dallas' Tex Schramm and the Colts' and Rams' Carroll Rosenbloom, was: They're making money playing a game. How much would they be making without it?
Garvey entered the arena quietly, first as a council under John Mackey's leadership, then as the union's top man, with Upshaw at his side. In 1982, with the whiff of free agency in the air, I covered the union's convention in Albuquerque. I hung out with Tom Keating, whom I knew from his days as a Raider defensive tackle, and Pete Gent, the wideout turned novelist. I wasn't allowed to attend the sessions, but I got the news from them.
Garvey's demands were 55 percent of the gross revenues and a wage scale for veterans, and especially rookies. Free agency didn't interest him. Management, with a little foresight, could have signed a long range contract that would have saved them untold billions through the years, but the attitude, as expressed by Schramm and the Bucs' Hugh Culverhouse, another management heavy, was "Don't give that damn communist, Ed Garvey, a thing." This was known as leadership.
Keating and Gent represented the union's free agency faction. The NFLPA already had won an anti-trust exemption in the famous Mackey case. Now was the time to drive hard for the big one. Keating had been on the NFLPA's Executive Council. He kept pressing the free agency point. So did other players and ex-players who were ambitious enough to attend the convention. But they came away from the sessions frustrated, angry.
They accused the union's directors of strongarm tactics, of squashing all attempts at dissent. Upshaw, especially, upset Keating, who had been his teammate on the Raiders for six years.
"He's turned into Garvey's hatchet man," he said.
I felt the same way. The introspective, reflective Upshaw had been replaced by a militant, a shoe on the table guy. And then when the convention had triggered a strike that kept the veterans out for seven games, and had produced a contract that ducked free agency in favor of "money now," and finally had propelled Upshaw into the Executive Director's spot, I figured the worst was in store.
I remember having a long talk with him in his office in Washington after he took control. He said he had been a different person in Albuquerque.
"I made mistakes," he said. "That wasn't really me. All you can do afterward is try to make things right."
Since then I talked to him, off and on, during the years. One criticism I always had of the NFLPA's bargaining posture was that player safety, elimination of artificial turf and the like, was always one of the first demands that was scrapped. It was always a throwaway issue. I got up on my high horse and said that worker safety should always be a prime concern of any legitimate union, not an early throwaway in negotiations.
"I try to negotiate for what the majority of my members want," he said. It made some kind of sense, I guess, but I just didn't like the ring of it.
I always was nervous about how tight he got with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. I told Upshaw I always felt a union should maintain adversarial relations with management, rather than all this buddy-buddy stuff. He laughed at me.
"I don't think I've done too badly for my members this way," he said.
Taking care of retired and indigent and disabled veterans is a complex issue, volatile, emotional, clouded by accusations on both sides. There's no question the players' pension has been a joke for many years. And there's no question there's a human aspect that must be addressed, if not legally then out of plain decency.
Once I asked my father about this, when the older veterans were demonstrating against the union for a share of the benefits. My father was a union leader for more than 50 years.
"How far back can you go?" he said. "How many non-union members from the old days can you cover? All you can try to do is appeal on a human level, and try to treat the most severe need cases first."
I don't want to make this a treatise on labor-management politics. Gene Upshaw fought his way up from a poor kid working in the cotton fields in Texas to one of the most powerful figures in sports history. Whether you agreed with him or not, the achievement was remarkable.