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Frank Deford
September 14, 1987
Former Raider lineman Gene Upshaw leads the NFL players union into battle with the owners—and now once again his reputation is on the line
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September 14, 1987

The Guard Who Would Be Quarterback

Former Raider lineman Gene Upshaw leads the NFL players union into battle with the owners—and now once again his reputation is on the line

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Not a coach?

"No, Gene didn't have the commitment to detail, long hours, all that," Davis says. "He has to be out there; he has to meet people. Gene has to be around."

Upshaw began, too, to spread his wings in his new community. As early as 1970 he became a member of the Democratic Central Committee of Alameda County, and he was later appointed to state boards dealing with junior colleges and public health. He became active in a variety of charities and in 1980 was presented with the NFLPA's Whizzer White Humanitarian Award "for services to team, community and country." That same year he was elected to the first of his two terms as president of the players' union.

In the spring of 1983, Ed Garvey decided to resign as executive director of the NFLPA. He urged Upshaw to succeed him at the union's headquarters in Washington, D.C. There wasn't much to hold Upshaw in Oakland any longer; his marriage had broken up, and, at 37, he could expect to squeeze out only one more season as a substitute in the trenches. Though he and Davis were, at the time, in their period of disaffection, he met with his mentor for several hours before advising Garvey to place his name before the union's executive committee. Then Upshaw asked Teresa Buich, with whom he had fallen in love, to come east with him.

She was 23 at the time. They had met when Buich, a catering manager at the Hyatt in Oakland, was in charge of some Raider team events at the hotel. Her family had operated a downtown San Francisco restaurant, the Tadich Grill, since the early 1900s. Terri's father is of Yugoslav extraction; her mother is Irish. None of the family was happy when they found out Terri was going out with a black, and Upshaw was well aware of their feelings when he asked her to give up her job and leave her hometown to go to Washington; he told her he wouldn't put any pressure on her. "I love you, Terri," he said, "but I could never live with the guilt of making you leave your family."

Buich went off alone to think. She began to realize that if she stayed behind she would lose her family anyway—she would never forgive them for demanding that she give up the man she loved. When Terri told them she would go, her father replied, all right then, but never come home again.

Terri and Gene settled in a house in the woods of suburban Virginia. They were married last autumn. Jack Donlan, executive director of the NFL Management Council and Upshaw's chief adversary, was one of the guests. No one from Terri's immediate family attended.

In May, Terri gave birth to their child, Justin, and she had great hopes that with the baby the family might be reconciled. But her mother and father have flatly refused to reconsider.

When the collective-bargaining talks opened in 1982, a number of uncertainties whipsawed Gene Upshaw. As a player he was over the hill, with no particular career ahead. His marriage had ended, and he was in the throes of a traumatic new love affair. His father was suffering from a circulatory ailment that would, ultimately, cost him both his legs. Upshaw was passionately devoted to the union and the positions it had taken in collective bargaining, but the union was being hammered from inside and out. For the first time he wasn't just an anonymous number 60 something; he was very visible. "Gene felt that someone had to be out front while I was negotiating," Garvey says. "But he was still trying to figure out exactly what his role was."

The closest public analogy would probably be Senator Robert Dole in 1976, when he was hatchetman-designate as a running mate for president Gerald Ford. Dole, like Upshaw, fared badly in the part of the heavy; they didn't have the personality for it, so they came off even worse. At one point Upshaw was accused of threatening Russell Erxleben, the player rep of the Saints, a team that was at odds with the union stance. On another occasion Upshaw wrote what might be characterized as a threatening letter to Craig Morton, the Denver quarterback, who'd had the gall to express a contrary opinion. "One thing about this game," Upshaw wrote, "we get to see you on the field next year. We will have a little additional incentive when we do."

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