Most galling of all, the effect of that fateful quote in which he said he didn't represent the retired players. When in truth, he said, he'd increased their pensions after each of the last four collective bargaining agreements, was carving $82,000 per year out of the average current player's salary to improve NFL retirees' benefits, and he'd intended that quote to be targeted at DeLamielleure in particular, not retired players in general.
But the cogwheels of cause and effect could not be halted. John Wooten, a Browns guard in the 1960s, read that quote and decided that the moment, at last, had come. He called the ghost that even other ghosts crept softly around. He called Bernie Parrish.
Wooten read the quote to his old Cleveland player rep, the 71-year-old man who had presided over the union in the early '60s, turned over to the Justice Department his claims of NFL malfeasance and ties to organized crime—no charges were ever brought—and wrote a harrowing exposé of the league, They Call It a Game, in '71. Parrish's eyes narrowed. He canceled his cozy retirement from a successful second career as a hotel construction magnate and began a painstaking search of names, numbers and dates. He concluded that players from his era were getting shafted, but he had no legal recourse to force the union to increase their benefits. Instead, he filed a class-action lawsuit accusing Upshaw, the union and its Players Inc. merchandising arm of enriching union officers by diverting millions of dollars that he says should have gone to retired players for commercial use of their images—a suit that has been dismissed and refiled in federal court and which could compel Upshaw and commissioner Roger Goodell to testify under oath.
Parrish studied the disability plan, which was riddled with obstacles—many placed there by management, not the union—that often prevented the lame from qualifying, and he gave the ghosts their battle cry: "It's delay, deny and hope we die." And every week to 10 days, he e-mailed a scorching newsletter to a group list that numbered nearly 2,000, including disgruntled members of Gridiron Greats, Fourth & Goal and Retired Players for Justice. "They're throwing a handful of pebbles in their ocean of bulls---and expecting us to applaud as the ripples go away," he says. "We're not going away. They're going to write a check."
Then came his gut punch.
Parrish dug up an old story last year about the unusual circumstances surrounding the death of Upshaw's first wife in 2002, more than 15 years after their divorce. Jimmye Lee Hill-Upshaw's remains had been found on a rural property in Afton, Okla.—near a mental health clinic at which she was being treated—four months after she was reported missing. Investigators had found no evidence of foul play, yet Parrish e-mailed the brotherhood: "Why wouldn't they have at least questioned Upshaw?" he asked. "Why wouldn't they have given him a lie detector test?" Yahoo.com sports learned of the mass e-mail and published Parrish's suspicions.
"Anyone who'd bring the death of my ex-wife into this is lower than a snake's belly, and he's a liar," Upshaw seethes. "I've taken every body blow you can take. But it won't change who I am or what I do. My life and career will not be defined by it. The record will show that I did work for retired players, for every improvement they got.
"Sure, there are things about the disability plan I'd like to improve. I want the guys who deserve it to get it. But I'm limited in what I can do. The owners administer that plan as well—that's Taft-Hartley labor law. But do you see the retired players going after the owners?
"We never forgot the retired players. We never left them behind. Yeah, we've got a billion in the benefits fund, but we owe a f---ing billion [to all qualified retirees]. I've got that big-ass liability and I've got to pay for that. Ed Garvey drilled it into my head: If they all knock on the window for their pension, it's got to be there.
"Look at it this way. If you put a pile of money in a room with 10 people in it and ask them to split it up, do you think someone outside that room's going to get any of it? But that's what I do every new collective bargaining agreement. I'm the one who takes some of it from the 10 guys in the room and gives it to the guys that aren't even in the room—the retired players. I gave $147.5 million of the $571 million that went into benefits last year to retired players to increase their plan. That's what I've done! I don't know how many people would do that. It's not human nature. Sheeeeet. It just doesn't happen. It didn't happen when we were playing! But you can't turn this into a welfare state! It's not what it is!"