Gene Upshaw cried.
He saw the hostages free, and he wept at the sight.
He was not alone.
In his 14th year as the left guard in the Oakland Raider offensive line, Gene Upshaw will play in the Super Bowl here Sunday.
Football defines his life. An all-American player at Texas A&I, an all-pro with the Raiders, Upshaw has given away his body for the game. Nothing -- not knee operations, broken fingers, separated shoulders, pinched nerves that paralyzed his upper body -- nothing has kept him out of any Oakland game sine 1967. He lives for his work, for the bonds that tie him to the men sharing his foxhole.
He sat in his hotel room Tuesday night, five days before the game that is the capstoine of a player's career, and he cried for joy that had nothing to do with Gene Upshaw, football player, but everything to do with Gene Upshaw, citizen.
"We're here in the Super Bowl, which to me is a big deal," he said today. "But I watched the television all day and I saw Ronald Reagan become president and I saw the whole hostage thing. I thought, "There's the real world. The rest of the world is still going on. That's what is important, not the Super Bowl.' When the hostages got off the plane in Algeria, I felt it strong."
Red Smith said people go to games to have fun and they read the paper the next morning to have fun again. The fun today is the real world. The fun today is with the 52 Americans who are free at last. A block from the Superdome there is a billboard that for a year carried the words, "Iran, Let Our People Go." About noon on Tuesday, someone painted over those words with these: "Praise the Lord."
Any newspaperman worth his typewritter ribbon wanted to be in Washington or Tehran, Algiers or Wiesbaden. The stories were in those cities, not here. Coming off the plane in Wiesbaden, the hostages lit the darkness with smiles that touched a meann old football player 5,000 miles away. By week's end here, when 1,300 newspapermen and broadcasters have worked every angle, football fans can be forgiven for believing that truth, justice and the American way exist only to make the Super Bowl possible.This week is seven parts hype and one part football, all done for fun, as Red Smith says, and the truth is everyone has a helluva time in fantasyland.
Especially Gene Upshaw. This is his third Superbowl. He loves everything about the week. Some players grouse about the three days of press conferences with people asking questions such as, "Is it hard to play the banjo with broken fingers?" Upshaw brought a camera to the press conferences to take pictures of people asking him questions. He puts the pictures in his scrapbook. This is a big time in his life.
He wants to win Sunday. He lives to win football games. Win or lose, he won't cry afterward. It isn't that big for Gene Upshaw. He sees a world outside the Superdome. President of the pro football player's union, a member of the board of governors of California Community Colleges, Upshaw won the 1980 Byron White Humanitarian Award given for service to his team, community and country. Above his locker is a sticker -- "Kennedy '84" -- and Upshaw says he wants to run for political office when he quits football.
"I cried when I saw the Lopez family on TV." Upshaw said. "They saw their son coming off the plane and started crying and laughing. That's more important than what we're doing here. Think about what the hostages went through. They were locked up for 444 days. No two-a-day practices, no beer, no carousing . . ."
Upshaw stopped for a little smile.
"Think about the little things they didn't have. No newspapers, no radio, nothing. I looked at them coming off that plane. Did you see that sign on the inside of the plane door: 'Welcome Back to Freedom'? It was kind of overwhelming, Reagan getting sworn in, the hostages getting out. For me, seeing the Lopez family was what it was all about."
Mary and Jesse Lopez of Glove, Ariz., are the parents of Jim Lopez, a Marine guard who was instrumental in sneaking six Americans into the Candian embassy when Iranians seized the American compound. In the television interview Tuesday night, the father said his son refused to leave with the six. "He said it would be desertion," the father related. "He said, 'It is my duty as an American soldier to stay.'"
As many sports promoters do, the NFL uses red, white and blue in its logo. Patriotism sells tickets. However offensive such exploitation is, the truth remains that sports is a vivid reminder of what this country is. We rise as players and coaches on our merits alone; we go to games created by free enterprise, and we have fun when we want to have fun.
"Freedom and choice -- that's how we wound up with America," Upshaw said. "Football is part of that. We're here as entertainmnet, to spread a little enjoyment. You saw the hostages in their football jerseys, didn't you?"
At Christmas time, we saw the hostages on film, some wearing football jerserys representing Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The sports metaphor is part of the American psyche. As the former hostages boarded buses at the Rhein-Main Air Force Base, we heard Americans chant, as they had the day our Olympic hockey team beat the Russians, "USA . . . USA!" We're No. 1!" someone shouted.
The mother of Gary Lee, a former hostage, told Jane Pauley of NBC's "Today" show that her son said he wanted to be home in time to see the Super Bowl.
NBC then invited all 52 former hostages to come to the game as the network's guests.
"The hostages won't want to do that," Gene Upshaw said. "There would be too much hoopla here for them. I guarantee you they don't want to be here. They know what is really important now. All they'll want to do is sleep in their own beds and kiss their kids."