So many of our leaders are revealed by what they were as young men. But, for goodness' sake, what does an offensive lineman do when he grows up? Can a man who has been happy to be a blocker all his youth ever lead other men? If you know the answer to that and can peer inside Gene Upshaw—number 63, guard—you could very well divine how the National Football League labor negotiations will turn out...and how Gene Upshaw will turn out.
Certainly much in the collective bargaining must revolve around Upshaw, who as executive director of the NFL Players Association is the first inmate from any major sporting asylum to graduate to such a position. Moreover, at a time when the issue of blacks in sports management is prominent, Upshaw is on display as the most important black sports executive in America. Not only that, but as a member of the AFL-CIO executive council, Upshaw is also the only conspicuous black labor official in the U.S., perhaps the best-known black union leader since the sainted A. Phillip Randolph led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
Upshaw's position is not the result of mere happenstance: He has nurtured political dreams almost from the day, in 1967, when he arrived in the NFL from little Texas A & I College and from little (pop. 12,100) Robstown, Texas. Not for nothing did Upshaw's Raider teammates come to call him The Governor.
But until now, the only time Upshaw emerged from the catacombs of the scrimmage line and into the public light was in 1982, at the last NFL contract negotiations, when he came across as heavy-handed, intractable, belligerent, even goonish. At that time he was still an active player and the president of the union, playing a secondary but highly visible role to Ed Garvey, who was then the executive director of the NFLPA. Upshaw is still haunted by the image he presented. "I'd have been hesitant myself about me if I'd been there to see me," he says.
How Upshaw handles these negotiations and how the public perceives him will have enormous impact on his future. "I know," he says. "Already all everybody says is 'Who is the real Gene Upshaw?' " Is he the guard who would be quarterback or the guard who would merely be guardian?
John Madden arrived in Oakland as an unknown assistant coach at the same time Upshaw came in as an unknown first-round draft pick. It was almost immediately apparent, Madden says, that "Gene was going to be something after football." Raiders managing general partner Al Davis had drafted Upshaw, a tackle and center in college, with plans to shift him to guard, mainly to be able to have him face off with Buck Buchanan, the giant lineman of the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland's main rival in those days. Guard or tackle, though, Upshaw was to prove himself the quintessential offensive lineman.
As Madden explains it, the offensive lineman is, in the beginning, almost invariably a large, awkward kid, the biggest boy in his class. "But if he does anything at all to anybody else, he's [called] a bully," Madden says. "So he learns to take it. Then he goes into high school and they put him on the football team, and they say to him, now go out and be tough. And it's hard." So these fellows become offensive linemen, where they can just fend other people off.
But if most offensive linemen are formed in their oversized adolescence, Upshaw must have been born with the personality. Until his senior year in high school he was a runt; at football games he helped tote the first-down chains while his brother Marvin, younger by 15 months, starred on the varsity. Marvin, who would himself go on to play for nine years in the NFL, was an extrovert, a prankster and, as you might imagine, a defensive lineman. Gene was a fine athlete, a genuine prospect as a baseball pitcher, but he was only 5'10", 185 pounds when he graduated from high school.
Even after he shot up and filled out at A & I to 6'5", 255 (which is, more or less, what he remains today), Gene became no more aggressive. Neither did he develop any instinct for glory. In college, despite his size and coordination, he failed as a fullback and tight end, and when tried on defense, he managed somehow to go three entire games without making a single tackle.
But the passive kid who went down the road to college without even a scholarship had developed, by the end of his senior year at A & I, into a projected third-round NFL choice as an offensive lineman. After he played in the Senior Bowl, his first match against the real big-ticket All-Americas, Upshaw jumped up to first-round stature; in the College All-Star Game that summer, the hotshot rookies-to-be from Michigan State and Notre Dame and USC voted Upshaw from A & I a tri-captain. And he says matter-of-factly, "From that point on, it seems I've been the captain of everything."