He remained awake and cognizant on Tuesday, still talking to his wife, children and another visitor, Marvin, one of two younger brothers with whom he'd shared a bedroom in the little house in Robstown, Texas, where they'd grown up with no running water. Marvin, brimming with piss and vinegar and an early growth spurt, had been the family's high school football star, the defensive lineman that 5'10" Gene—on the jayvee team until his senior year—had had to watch from the sideline as he toted the first-down chains.
But then Gene spurted—six inches and 50 pounds—at Texas A&I, where the football coach talked him into trying out for the team, and late-blossomed into a 1967 first-round draft choice. Throughout the Upshaw brothers' football life, from inter-squad high school scrimmages to their college and pro rivalries, Marvin would tap a teammate on the tail, motion him over so he could line up across from big brother Gene and tee off on him before the whistle, still failing in his 30s to get the goat of his unflappable older brother. "You never get that privilege," Gene would say.
That's the trait that took him from the cotton field to terrain no other athlete had ever reached. He personalized nothing. He measured three times before he cut. He grasped how each issue leaned on other issues, and so it was always him at the eye of the storm, waiting for the radical reps to finish ranting and then laying out a plan that reeled them to the center. That's how he'd ruled, through the strikes in 1982 and '87 when the association was in tatters, to the end around he called in '91, when his decision to decertify the union stripped owners of their antitrust exemption and pressured them to cut a deal—the most lucrative one for players in all of sports, a 60% slice of revenues and unfettered free agency in exchange for a salary cap. That's how he led a group of headstrong men, 60% of them black, through the castle walls built by 28 white multimillionaire owners. That's how he'd ended up sitting on the armrest of the throne of commissioner Tagliabue and his replacement, Roger Goodell. They were partners divvying up a pie that expanded astronomically as TV executives became assured of long-term labor peace—a tad too knee-to-knee for those hobbling retired players who screamed that Upshaw had abandoned the adversarial perch to which he'd been elected.
TUESDAY NIGHT came. The orderlies shuttling in and out of his room, no doubt, already loved him. For all his clamped teeth when it came to feelings and union matters, Upshaw was renowned for his chattiness with the doormen and dishwashers, the folks just squeezing by. And then, with plans beginning to be made for his return home to Virginia and the ensuing chemotherapy regimen, the disease—like a housebreaker rifling through the electrical box and shutting off breakers—advanced with shocking speed on Wednesday. There went the kidneys. Then the liver. Then the heart.
Just like that. The only man to play in Super Bowls in three decades. The only man to start in championship games in the AFL and the NFL. The most influential black labor leader in America and the only athlete to later take the reins of his sports union. Gone. Upshaw's half-dozen lead lieutenants back at the home office, clueless that he was even ill, shuddered with disbelief last Thursday morning when official word came.
"Two days [from diagnosis to death] is a record," said Miki Yaras-Davis, who has charted plenty of fatal diseases as the union's director of benefits, "but that man was always setting records."
It was as if, once he got the word, he'd drawn up a game plan, said Dr. Mayer, "and said, 'This is how a man dies.'"
With one drawback: Upshaw hated to leave behind any clutter; his desk spotless at the end of every workday, his kitchen stainless at the close of every dinner party. But he'd arranged for no successor to confront the lawsuit filed by disgruntled former players Bernie Parrish and Herb Adderley over dispersal of Players' Inc. funds, or the far larger storm clouds on the horizon—the recent decision by owners remorseful over their 40% slice to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2010. Inside that sealed vault had lain a five-decade archive that no one could remotely replicate.
Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel hastily named interim executive director, will most likely see the CBA crisis through for two years, and then...? Troy Vincent, the retired cornerback and former union president? Trace Armstrong, the retired defensive end and an ex--union president as well?
All that will be put aside until Gene Upshaw's large life is commemorated this week in Washington, D.C. The redwood felled before anyone ever heard the saw.