Upshaw Leaves NFL at a Loss

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

It had been nearly two weeks since the news of Gene Upshaw's death, but the prevailing sentiment expressed by the football players and executives who gathered at the Kennedy Center yesterday to pay tribute to the longtime executive director of the NFL Players Association remained disbelief.

Upshaw's friends and associates said they have struggled to deal with the loss personally. The sport, meantime, begins to grapple with how to replace one of the leaders who spent more than two decades helping the league achieve its current state of prosperity.

"I'm still very stunned," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in the lobby before a nearly three-hour memorial service in the Concert Hall. "It's still hard to imagine a world without Gene as an individual and an NFL without Gene. He's a very, very significant figure in the history of the NFL."

An estimated 1,400 people attended the service, which was scheduled on a Tuesday in part to allow active players to be on hand. That is the usual day off for players in the NFL's work week.

"When I looked out here and saw all the people who came in -- owners, general managers, teammates, players all around the league, ex-players, referees -- that tells you how many lives he touched," said Upshaw's former Oakland Raiders teammate, Art Shell. "We're here to celebrate his life. He was a great man, the greatest person I've ever known."

Mike Kenn, one of three former union presidents who spoke at the service, asked those in attendance to give Upshaw one final round of applause, and they responded with a lengthy standing ovation.

Said Eugene Upshaw III, one of Gene Upshaw's sons: "He would huff and puff about all this. But he would be grateful."

Upshaw died Aug. 20 at a home he owned in California near Lake Tahoe. He'd gone to a nearby hospital for tests three days earlier, leading to a diagnosis of an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. Even his closest associates in football weren't aware of his cancer diagnosis before learning of his death.

"We're all shocked at the suddenness of our loss," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

The mood of the service alternated between humorous and poignant. Broadcaster John Madden, who coached Upshaw with the Raiders, was particularly emotional. Madden said Upshaw probably was looking down at the proceedings and had a quip about everyone there, including an observation that his old coach was speaking for far too long and should be seated. Madden choked back tears and was unable to finish his remarks.

"I'm gonna sit down like Gene said," Madden said.

Earlier, Madden looked at Upshaw's wife, Terri, sons and brother, Marvin, seated in the front row and said: "You lost a husband and a brother and a father. And we all lost someone very, very special. . . . I was with Gene at the Hall of Fame in Canton a month ago. That's why this whole thing is so shocking."

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