Gene Upshaw was a leader in the locker room and the NFL as a whole. As the Executive Director of the NFL’s Player’s Association, he bargained for free agency and higher salary caps and was in the middle of the 1987 player strike. The former NFL guard‘s death was a surprise to all. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only three days prior, Upshaw left behind a legacy of superb play and significant leadership.
Gene Upshaw’s career
After only playing one year of high school football, Upshaw managed to make his way to Texas A&M University — Kingsville. He was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, now the Las Vegas Raiders, in 1967 and settled in to the offensive guard role. During his time with the Raiders, Upshaw played in three Super Bowls in three different decades (1967, 1976, 1980). He was the first player to accomplish such a feat later followed by Jerry Rice and Bill Romanowski.
Upshaw was part of a strong offensive line that overwhelmed defenses and allowed the Raiders to stack up rushing yards against their opponents. He was the first guard to get voted into the Hall of Fame, and his accolades go on and on. According to NFL.com, he was a six-time Pro-Bowler, Three-time First-Team All-Pro, part of the 1970s All-Decade Team, and included in the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Big games and leadership roles
Many iconic games were played over Upshaw’s sixteen season career, some he even participated in. The Heidi game happened in 1968 between the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. The Raiders scored two touchdowns in the final minute to win the game. But many fans missed it as NBC switched its broadcast to the TV film, Heidi, instead.
One of the most iconic games, the “Immaculate Reception,” saw the Steelers come from behind the Raiders to win. In the final seconds of the game, Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw through a Hail Mary pass intended for John Fuqua. It bounced off a helmet or hand, and a Pittsburgh player ran it in for a touchdown, winning the game.
Other notable games during Upshaw’s career include the Sea of Hands, Ghost to the Post, Holy Roller, and Red Right 88. Even though he played in some famous games, his leadership role in the Player’s Association is what he’s known for. Richard Berthelsen told The New York Times, “The game is better off for him having played it, and it’s better off for him having led the union than it would have been with any other single individual.”
His tragic end
Upshaw died at the end of August in 2008. His death was a surprise to those around him. The player’s union even had a conference scheduled for early September in which he was to attend. Upshaw died from pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis that occurred only three days before his death.
In honor of Upshaw and his tireless work for the NFL Player’s Union, the League announced that on opening weekend 2008, all teams would wear a patch with “GU” and No. 63 on their jerseys to remember him. The patch was included on the fields during opening weekend as well. The Raiders wore it for the rest of the season.
The NFLPA remembers Upshaw as the man that established a lot of firsts: a 401(k) program, performance-based pay and other incentives, and free agency and guaranteed club revenue shares. His leadership on and off the field solidifies his legendary NFL status for years to come.