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OF COURSE, death could have him as it could have any man: any way it wanted. But an odd thing happened last week once it entered that big house, Gene Upshaw. Death became him. ¶ Secretive. Abrupt. Adamant. ¶ Accidents and heart attacks have whisked major sports figures off the stage more suddenly than the exit of the executive director of the NFL Players Association and Hall of Fame guard. But has disease ever taken one with such swiftness and stealth? ¶ As stunned as his loved ones, friends, colleagues and adversaries were, they recognized death's eerie mimicry of his life. Some remembered those Saturday nights at his dinner table, talking and laughing over coffee and tequila, when the NFL legend would go off to do the dishes, return and announce that the party was over—then turn out the lights. Some had been dancing at Super Bowl bashes when he'd pull out his car keys and bolt, leaving them to scramble after him or be stranded. Others had been at the negotiating table with him when he smelled something foul, fell silent, arose and walked out. When Gene Upshaw decided it was time to go, he went. He didn't say goodbye.
He went last Wednesday night, in the ICU at Tahoe Forest Hospital. Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner and friend who'd partnered with Upshaw to restructure the league's economics and usher in an era of fantastic wealth, awoke in a fog to the news at 1 a.m. on Thursday and issued a statement hours later declaring that few players in history had had Upshaw's impact on the NFL. Then the shock and fog began to clear. "And I sat there all day thinking, Who else is in that few?" said Tagliabue. "I didn't want to say no one else has ever had that impact. But it may be no one. Gene was the sun and the moon and Venus and Jupiter and Mars. It takes awhile, you know, to replace them in a constellation."
Tagliabue hadn't seen Upshaw in a few months, but he'd heard the whispers. Weight was melting off the big man who'd ruled the NFLPA for a quarter century. Plenty of people were pointing it out to Gene, including Steelers owner Dan Rooney at the Hall of Fame gathering three weeks ago in Canton. But he'd just shrug it off, and their acquaintance with Upshaw's iron will—the one banana and five coffees that carried him till dinner, the four or five miles he pounded out on a treadmill while the rest of Washington, D.C., lunched—made them hesitant to press the point. Yes, he looked weary, but few executives on earth worked longer hours, and Upshaw was not a man to be pressed. And yes, his back had begun to ache, enough to pull out of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship a few weeks ago, but what 62-year-old's didn't? Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFLPA's medical director as well as a friend, advised him to get tests but didn't waste his breath when Gene decided to wait until after his annual August family vacation at his second home in Truckee, Calif., near Lake Tahoe. In Upshaw's entire NFL career, 15 years of trench savagery, he never once came out of a game.
On the night of Aug. 15, a Friday, he celebrated his 63rd birthday in Tahoe, and the resonance that number held wasn't lost on him. That was the license-plate number that linebackers and cornerbacks looked up and saw rumbling away after Upshaw—a mastodon four decades ago at 6'5", 265—had flattened them as he led sweeps for perhaps the greatest offensive line in NFL history. "Highway 63," his teammate, Raiders running back Mark van Eeghen, used to call the left-side swath that the snorting seven-time Pro Bowl player would blaze, his big Afro and beard about to burst right through that battered silver helmet, his long, pumping arms—encased in four rolls of tape—about to club anything left twitching.
"Number 63 turned 63," Gene kept chortling on that Friday night. Then he lay down in bed, and his breaths grew short, and the symmetry grew grim.
IT TOOK a day for his wife and Dr. Mayer, on the phone from the East Coast, to prod him to the emergency room. On Sunday morning he relented. He'd watched death gnaw at his father for two decades, taking piece after piece of both of the old man's legs in a series of amputations to stave off complications caused by diabetes, infections and congenitally thin veins. He'd watched Eugene Sr., without a murmur, drive himself to the hospital to get more of his legs sawed off, then go home, slide under his car and change the brakes ... until a Christmas Eve stroke finally took him out at 74. On Sunday evening at Tahoe Forest, when blood tests and scans indicated that Gene had cancer, and that it had already metastasized to his liver and lower intestines, there was neither flinch nor complaint. He'd learned young the folly of that: As the seven-year-old picking cotton from dawn to dusk all summer at a buck-twenty-five for each 100 pounds under the merciless glare of the Texas sun and the father waiting at home to tally his production. As the 20-year-old crawling through the darkness, muck and coiling pipes inside a 50-yard-long oil-field cooling tower to clean out the chemicals, oil and mud, advancing six grim feet a day for the entire summer.
What kind of cancer had he contracted? What sort of treatment would begin once the big man could be flown back to his home in northern Virginia, hopefully by early this week? He was moved from the ER to a hospital room at Tahoe Forest, checking in—Upshawish to the end—under an assumed name. Surrounded by his wife, Terri, and three sons, Eugene III, Justin and Daniel, he remained awake and as matter-of-fact as macadam as tests continued the following day. He may not have uttered one of his renowned Texas country nuggets, but you could almost hear him thinking it: "You can wish in one hand and s--- in the other, and see which one fills up."
Not a peep of his condition trickled to the media or to his home office in Washington, the skeletally staffed outfit he'd inherited in 1983. But what else was new? Upshaw was a relic executive, little concern for p.r. and less for transparency: a sealed vault. What he hadn't learned about tight lips from his old man, he'd gotten a doctorate in from his next mentor, the sultan of secrecy, Raiders owner Al Davis. All these years after working his way up the NFLPA ranks—from player rep to president to executive director—Gene still fetched his own coffee, photocopies and faxes, fixed his own office toilet, booked his own hotels and rental cars, left his staff in the dark about his whereabouts, rarely answered his cellphone and mentioned nothing about his work when he trudged home at 9 p.m., often to cook his own dinner. He was the ultimate Big Daddy, the provider who loved to serve friends, family and his 1,696-player constituency without flourish, acclaim or questioning. His generosity toward widows and orphans of former players, personal checks written and slipped into palms, went undeclared too. "I know where I'm going, but I don't explain," he'd say. "If you're too open, then everyone will find something wrong with everything. They'll get a finger in the pie."
That got him into trouble, deep trouble, with a group of loud retired players who didn't like their slice of the disability and pension pies and didn't like Gene's slice—with bonuses, Upshaw's 2006 income was reported as $6.7 million. It landed him in front of a congressional hearing last September and landed him in a media firestorm that had just begun to diminish in recent months with a series of new safety nets installed to catch the old warriors who'd stumbled into free fall. And maybe even—those who could only imagine the stress he'd swallowed over the last two years might wonder—landed him here at Tahoe Forest with a gutful of cancer.
BY MONDAY night, his second night in the hospital, doctors were almost certain they had I.D.'d their enemy: the most vicious of all, the one known as the silent disease, pancreatic cancer. The one that attacks, on average, 37,680 people a year in the U.S.... and kills 34,290 of them. Where was the yellowing of his skin and eyes that normally accompanied this cancer? The searing abdominal pain? If Gene had felt it, he'd let no one know it. But even if he'd submitted to testing a month or two earlier, his doctors knew, it would've made little difference.