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Losses That Come Too Soon

By Mike Wise
Friday, August 22, 2008

On the day Joe Bugel lost the second of his three daughters to a rare form of bone cancer, there was also an obligation in this job to talk about Gene Upshaw and what he meant to the game and society.

He played a seminal role as a union leader, took over the NFL Players Association in 1983, secured untold riches for his constituency and stayed on the job long enough to be accused of selling former and current players down the river in labor negotiations. Though, that was merely his latest incarnation, it certainly should not be his epitaph.

Upshaw was also once a Raider when it meant something to be a Raider, the first bona fide guard inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the only player to play in three Super Bowls in three different decades with the same team.

A gnarled, beat-up, old lineman in Italian wool as a labor leader, he came from a hamlet of a south Texas town, Robstown (pop. 12,727), and out of the same school (Texas A&I) that gave the NFL and Washington Darrell Green. How he morphed from one of Al Davis's fiercest and most loyal players to become one of the most learned and prominent executives in the business of sports is still one of the great blueprints for what an elite athlete can do after his body gives out on him.

I would write more about Gene Upshaw, who shockingly died of pancreatic cancer at 63, only days after his diagnosis. But I did not know him, nor did I cover him as a player or union leader.

I do know Joe Bugel -- Buges to so many, coach of Hogs old and new, another weather-beaten NFL man dealing with the fatal reality of this unforgiving disease today. Holly died yesterday morning of osteosarcoma -- two years after the disease was first diagnosed, eight months after her left arm was amputated because of it and a week after her 36th birthday.

I do know no parent should have to outlive a child, and, having written about his ordeal earlier this summer, how much the middle of Bugel's three daughters meant to him and his wife, Brenda, who called him in Ashburn yesterday morning to tell him the news.

I do know the franchise of the Washington Redskins has been touched by a young person's demise for the second time in two years, and no matter how much Sean Taylor's death attracted national attention or how much Holly Bugel's did not, there is something so wrong when young people with such large, full lives die so young.

I want to find meaning somewhere, perhaps in the words of a thoughtful reader of Redskins Insider, who posted this message on the blog yesterday after learning of the news: "Executives, middle managers, and rank and file employees can all learn something from how NFL families cope with adversity. Indeed, all of us can learn the value of forging and maintaining the important relationships in our lives despite the stresses, physical distances, and petty misunderstandings that may intervene."

But finding such reasoning in a death like Holly Bugel's, dissecting why a vibrant and genuine young woman who loved to teach and laugh and swim and watch her father's games on Sunday as she wore a burgundy and gold jersey, feels almost impossible.

Despite Bugel's stature and the fact that people knew of his family's struggle more than that of, say, the foreman at the construction site whose child is stricken with cancer, the bottom line is that a father lost his daughter yesterday. A family lost its middle child.

Those who knew of Holly's plight knew the disease had worsened the moment her father left the team after the Buffalo game to be with his family in Houston, where Holly was undergoing treatment at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

And yet, during a family vacation near San Diego just last month, there she was in the Jacuzzi, waving her foot at her father, who had never seen his daughter in a swimsuit after the cancer claimed her left arm last December.

"I bet you can't do that," she said to Buges, who said he laughed at the time and knew Holly was just trying to make her dad feel better about seeing his beautiful, blond child battling such a horrible affliction.

This is who Holly was at the end of her life: Whenever she felt bad for herself, Brenda and Joe said, she would take a long, hard look at the little children at the cancer center.

She even said to her father, when she thought of those children: "Hey, Dad, don't feel sorry. Somebody has my future ahead of me."

Jon Jansen and the rest of the offensive linemen have been as supportive as possible, given the circumstances. And many of them wept openly when Bugel returned to a meeting that had been interrupted by Brenda's call.

"He came back in and just told us: 'Hey, love your kids. You never know what's going to happen,' " Jansen said. "We just [told] him that we love him."

It was a sad day for the NFL, the Redskins and anyone connected with the family of Joe Bugel. But today is a good day to remember Holly, and the joy and sense of purpose she brought her father, mother and sisters, Angie and Jennifer. Here's hoping they find the solace that seems so elusive at this sad, sorrowful moment.

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