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Still, Al Davis, the man Upshaw chose to present him at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, was under no illusions about this gentle giant, this Ferdinand the Bull, when he drafted him. Upshaw even let Davis know prior to the draft that he thought the Raiders were "too rowdy" and that he would prefer to go to a more upstanding team. "But that's O.K.," Davis says. "When you have enough tough guys on a team, you don't need everybody to be tough. Besides, the environment forces people to be tougher, and even if you're not physically tough, you can be tough in other ways, in what you want and how you go after what you want. That's toughness, too."
Davis was quick to see Upshaw's other facets and would often go to Gene (and one or two other Raider leaders) to obtain approval when he was considering bringing in some new crazy; once, in fact, Upshaw gave a thumbs-down on an All-Pro. His judgment was valued that highly by Davis. Moreover, when Upshaw became an annual all-leaguer, his intelligence and perception were discovered by a wider audience. Art Shell, the tackle who dressed alongside Upshaw, just as he played next to him on the left side of the Raider line, remembers that after every game, he was shut off from his own locker by the press, which gathered about Upshaw—"just like he was a quarterback."
But the mild-mannered guard was still not one to assume real command, to seize the reins. At one point Davis felt obliged to summon Upshaw to his office and exhort him to exert his natural leadership. Perhaps not surprisingly then, in 1982, when Upshaw the union president exhibited the behavior of a loutish henchman, it was widely taken as proof that he could not act on his own, that he was only a blunt instrument for Garvey to wield.
"I still carry that ghost with me," Upshaw says. "The ghost of how I was in '82. And I carry two other ghosts, too—the ghost of Ed Garvey and the ghost of Al Davis. A lot of people just naturally assume that one or the other is always instructing me. But that's ridiculous. I'm the one in the barrel this time, and whatever happens, I'm the one who's going to have to justify it."
What is manifest, though, is Upshaw's sense of loyalty. Many players forgive Upshaw his excesses of five years ago because they recognize that loyalty factor and understand that he was " Garvey's guy"—the guard who protects the quarterback, whoever he might be and whatever play he might call.
It is revealing that the four-point agenda that Upshaw has brought to the job—1) get the players' confidence in the union; 2) change the public's perception; 3) improve the financial situation; and 4) open up lines of communication with management—appears to validate what critics said about Garvey, that he bankrupted the NFLPA of funds, internal support and the union's good name. But Upshaw consistently defends Garvey, claiming he was a scapegoat who did a fine job of dealing with dissension from within the ranks and the NFL steamroller from without. "Sometimes Ed's whole job was just surviving," Upshaw says sympathetically.
The NFL, which through the years has developed a much more effective—and intimidating—propaganda machine than that of any other professional sport, successfully pilloried Garvey in the press throughout his tenure, painting him as a meddlesome interloper, rather like what the segregationist establishment used to label civil rights activists: an outside agitator. If pointy-headed Ed Garvey would only stop sticking his nose into America's football fun, they intimated, then everything would be just hunky-dory between the happy-go-lucky players and their good friends the owners.
Upshaw today would be delighted if the league and its doctrinaire advocates in the press would single him out for the same kind of calumny. "You see, it's going to be awfully difficult for them to attack me the way they did Ed," he says. "I'm black and I'm a player. Even if I pissed a lot of guys off in '82, I'm still a player, and I can still go into any locker room. And I'm the only black on the AFL-CIO board. For the first time now, I recognize that I mean something to black people. When I was a player, they didn't know me unless I was wearing 63. Now they do. They know who I am, and when I walk down the street, they see I'm carrying a banner."
It is possible, of course, that Upshaw is the wrong man to do labor's battle with the entrenched veteran NFL experts. Word kept leaking out that the league figured him for a patsy. It may well be that Upshaw is too nice, too gentle, a fine candidate to balance the ticket but not one to head it—a lieutenant governor, not The Governor.
But it is wise to keep in mind how he advanced: a rustic black who grew up without sophistication in the last gasp of segregation; a small-college walk-on who became Super Bowl captain; boutique union chief who rose to U.S. labor's executive council; a lineman who became a spokesman. It figures that each step up would be careful and tentative, each move chary, that he would accept the guidance of each mentor: the father, first, who instructed him in discipline, charity and racial tolerance; then Gil Steinke, the A & I coach who found him watching practice from the sidelines and put him in a uniform; then Davis; then Garvey. But for four years now, Upshaw has, at last, been strictly on his own. He has married again, begun another family, even moved to a new part of the country.