Players, NFL Prospered During Upshaw's 25-Year Tenure

Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 1983, also played with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1967 until 1981. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection and 11-time All-Pro died Wednesday night at age 63.
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association since 1983, also played with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders from 1967 until 1981. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection and 11-time All-Pro died Wednesday night at age 63. (Morry Gash - AP)
By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 21, 2008; 9:08 PM

One of my lingering memories of Gene Upshaw involves a Congressional hearing several years ago when he and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue were asked to testify at a hearing focusing on the NFL's steroid policy.

After Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association since 1983, had completed his opening statement, one showboating Congressman whose name really doesn't matter much began blustering about the football program at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska. Congressman Cornhusker was not particularly interested in asking Upshaw about steroid use among NFL players. He was far more focused on gleaning a bit of inside information about the man his school had just hired as its head football coach.

We're paraphrasing here, but the questioning went something like "Mr. Upshaw, I know you were a member of the Oakland Raiders and we just hired the Raiders former head coach, Bill Callahan. I'm just wondering what you thought of him and whether you think he'll be able to turn get the program back on track."

Upshaw looked both amused and somewhat taken aback by a query he had not anticipated. Still, he answered politely that he thought Callahan was a talented coach and a good choice. The Congressman seemed satisfied enough and the hearing droned on and on, long enough to make it very obvious that Upshaw and the other star witness that morning, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, clearly were the smartest men in the hearing room, Congressmen and women included.

Afterward, in a Rayburn Building corridor, I told Upshaw I also was somewhat surprised when Congressman Chutzpah had asked him about Callahan and the Nebraska football program at the start of a very serious hearing.

Paraphrasing again, I recall him smiling again and saying something to the effect of "once a Raider, always a Raider, and they never let you forget."

Gene Upshaw once was an Oakland Raider, and arguably one of the greatest offensive linemen in the history of the National Football League. His bronze bust is in that sacred room in Canton, where so many of his fellow Hall of Fame fraternity brothers have been immortalized, including two other men from one of the more storied offensive lines in history -- left tackle Art Shell and center Jim Otto.

Throw in another Hall-of-Famer from those years, tight end Dave Casper, and you can understand why it didn't matter who played running back, the Raiders were going to pound you on the ground, and protect the quarterback all day long.

Upshaw played in Oakland for 15 years on teams that went to ten conference championships and won two Super Bowls. He also became a great friend of Raiders maverick team owner and founder Al Davis, surely one of the shrewdest (and some might say devious) minds in the storied history of the game. Davis always did what he thought was in the best interest of his team, and never thought twice about taking on his fellow owners or several commissioners if he felt he was being wronged or slighted in any way.

Davis also loved to talk about the "pride and poise" of the Raiders, a franchise slogan that endures to this day. And rarely did one man embody both attributes than did Gene Upshaw, whose death Thursday at age 63 came only four days after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Upshaw was rightfully proud of so many breakthrough accomplishments during his 25-year tenure at the head of a union he also helped keep alive back in the 1960s and '70s when many team owners often made life extremely difficult for players active in union activities.

To his credit, Al Davis was not in that group of union-busting millionaire bullies, and Upshaw often sought his counsel both as a player and as a union leader. What he learned most of all from Davis was that if you believe in a cause, fight for it, even if it's not especially popular or goes against the conventional wisdom.


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