The last time Gene Upshaw left home, he grew seven inches and gained 70 pounds in four years. When he arrived at the Senior Bowl from obscure A & I, nobody could be sure how much talent he had. "I didn't have the slightest idea myself how good I was," he says. Now the negotiations are his Senior Bowl, and nobody will know till they're concluded how much he has grown in these past four years—or how good he is.
Eugene Upshaw Jr. spent his childhood going to a four-room school-house, playing baseball and picking cotton. He grew up on the cusp of integration, and it helped that the two oldest of the three Upshaw brothers. Gene and Marvin, were, like their father before them, terrific baseball players.
Eugene Sr. had instituted a rule that the brothers could avoid picking cotton as long as they won on the diamond. In games when Gene struggled on the mound, Marvin, the catcher, would come out from behind the plate to remind his older brother of the alternative. For picking cotton they were paid a buck and a quarter for every 100 pounds; it was backbreaking work in the Texas sun. Cotton-picking was no shade and all sweat; at lunch break the pickers would duck under a trailer just to get out of the scorching rays.
Not long ago Upshaw returned to his Texas home and went out to those fields where he had picked cotton. It just didn"t seem right to him. The rows didn't look nearly long enough. When he was young and he was picking, they stretched on forever.
Gene's mother, Cora Upshaw, worked as a domestic for white folks, while Eugene Sr. read meters and performed a variety of other tasks for an oil company. Even though the family could have used every penny, Mr. Upshaw—once a semi-pro pitcher—warned Gene that if he chose to sign a bonus to pitch instead of going to college, he would be kicked out of the house for good. So Gene went the few miles down Route 77 and paid the $75 to attend Texas A & I. Nobody bucked Eugene Sr. Even after his sons had physically matured—even when Marvin was bigger than his old man—Eugene Sr. would "take the belt" to any of his boys who misbehaved.
When he set off for college, Gene owned no great ambitions. He figures now that if he hadn't made it in sports, he might have become a schoolteacher. He was an unworldly black country boy, and even now, though he has varnished his drawl, his backwater Dixie origins are occasionally betrayed when he pronounces a word with a telltale extra r: querstion, borther, coarch. When he left the Southwest in 1967 to join the Raiders in the big city of Oakland, he was wide-eyed and, he baldly admits, immediately got married simply because "it seemed like everybody else was." He joined the union because the player rep said, "Sign here."
Even on the field he was green. His first confrontation with the cagey Buchanan was a disaster; Upshaw was mortified that the Raiders had thrown away a first-round draft pick on him. Buchanan, however, recognized right away that no matter how raw the big kid was, he was an athlete far superior to those Buchanan usually contended with at guard.
"Gene had that offensive-lineman mentality," Buchanan says. "He didn't appear to be aggressive. But all I know is that the Raiders were the only team I played where I got hickeys." Upshaw, invariably The Governor, would regularly engage Buchanan in conversation at the line, then, on the snap, blow into him in the middle of a sentence. "Gene would beat up on you and then apologize," Buchanan says. Politicking, always politicking. Negotiating.
Davis loaded responsibility on Upshaw. "Gene only let me down once in a big game—1974," he says. "And I never let him forget it. Then he let me down on something else at about the time of the negotiations, when he wasn't himself. In '82, Gene was just different. That separated us for a while, but the debt we owe him is larger than that one incident. You see, Gene was a great organization man. Now, you say 'company man' and that has a bad connotation. But organization man is positive, and that was Gene Upshaw. He has so many fine characteristics. With all the great Raider players I've had over the years, still, Gene was probably the one constant."
Early in Upshaw's tenure as a Raider, Davis began to see in him the qualities of a general manager.