Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders who led the National Football League Players Assn. through a strike and into an era of labor stability and soaring salaries, died only days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the union announced Thursday. He was 63.
Upshaw died Wednesday night at his Lake Tahoe home, according to a statement on the players association’s website.
“We are deeply saddened and shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of our leader, Gene Upshaw,” the statement said. “Gene learned he was sick just this past Sunday and he died with his family at his side.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that Upshaw “did everything with great dignity, pride, and conviction. He was the rare individual who earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both for his accomplishments on the field and for his leadership of the players off the field.”
Upshaw’s death comes just months after NFL owners unanimously voted to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement. The move raised the specter of the first player strike since 1987 -- a strike that occurred with Upshaw at the helm.
Absent an agreement by 2010, a work stoppage could occur in 2011.
“Gene Upshaw’s death creates a perfect storm of two huge issues for the union,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor law professor at UC Berkeley. “First, Gene Upshaw defined the players union over decades, and now he’s gone. Second, even with him at the helm, it would have been a difficult, tough set of negotiations. Without him, it’s going to be an even tougher challenge.”
The union Thursday appointed general counsel Richard Berthelsen as acting executive director.
Eugene Thurman Upshaw Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1945, in Robstown, Texas. He joined the Raiders in 1967, drafted as a 6-foot-5, 255-pound rookie out of Texas A&I;, now Texas A&M-Kingsville.;
Playing in the old American Football League and the newly merged NFL, Upshaw was a dominant blocker during the Raiders’ Northern California heyday, appearing in seven Pro Bowl games and winning championship rings in Super Bowls XI and XV. He appeared in 307 consecutive preseason, regular-season and postseason games.
In a 2007 interview with The Times, Upshaw said he became active in union politics in part because of a contract dispute. As a rookie, he signed a contract that was guaranteed even if he was cut from the team -- but such a deal was never offered again after the AFL merged with the NFL.
“After the merger I never had another, I could never get another no-cut contract,” Upshaw said. “And I believed that if someone signed me to a contract, they should be required to pay me.”
Upshaw also told of a negotiating session with former Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm, who said, “You guys are cattle, and we’re the ranchers. And ranchers can always get more cattle.”
He said he had toyed with the idea of writing about his union activities -- quipping that the working title was “The Last Plantation.”
He was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1987, the same year he led union members on a strike that led owners to bring in replacement players. Upshaw subsequently defended the strike as necessary to prepare the groundwork for a lucrative, seven-year collective bargaining agreement signed in 1993 that included free agency and a salary cap.
The contract tied player salaries to a percentage of league revenues. This year’s players will be paid $4.5 billion, according to figures provided by owners, and each team’s salary cap is at an all-time high of $116 million.
And, since 1994, the NFLPA has benefited financially from Players Inc., a lucrative for-profit venture.
“If you look at the history of the NFL you’re going to find out that he was one of the most influential people that the league has known,” John Madden, who coached the Raiders during much of Upshaw’s playing career, said in a statement. “He did so much, not only for the players but also for the owners, the teams and the game of pro football.”
Added Raiders owner Al Davis: “Gene Upshaw’s career successes as a professional football player and a union leader are unparalleled. He is as prominent a sportsman as the world has known.”
Yet in recent years, critics had accused Upshaw of being too cozy in his dealings with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whom Upshaw counted as a friend. HBO’s Bryant Gumbel, in a 2006 segment of “Real Sports,” called Upshaw a “personal pet” of Tagliabue, criticizing what he saw as Upshaw’s unwillingness to pursue guaranteed contracts that other sports leagues offer.
Doug Allen, who for years ran Players Inc. and now is executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, disagreed with such critics.
“When Gene thought it was appropriate to be partners with the league, that’s what he did,” Allen, a longtime personal friend of Upshaw, told The Times earlier this year. “But when Gene sensed there was reason to be adversarial or be in conflict with the league, he was never afraid to assert the interests of the players over that of the league.”
Upshaw also had drawn fire from a vocal cadre of NFL retirees, including former Chicago Bears player and coach Mike Ditka, who said the union had failed to improve their pension and retiree healthcare benefits.
Last year, as tensions between the two camps rose, Upshaw found himself before a congressional committee -- and got into a verbal duel with former NFL player Joe DeLamielleure.
DeLamielleure, who met with Upshaw during the Hall of Fame game ceremonies earlier this month in Canton, Ohio, voiced sympathy for Upshaw’s family.
“I have no personal animosity toward Gene,” DeLamielleure said. “We don’t see eye to eye, but it was a disagreement. Those things happen, and they’re immaterial at a time like this. Gene cared deeply about his job, and he did lots of good work for his current players.”
DeLamielleure said he and other Hall of Fame players noticed that Upshaw had lost weight, but that there was no indication he was ill. “Gene always was working out, he was tremendously fit,” DeLamielleure said. “I just figured he was kicking the workouts up another notch.”
Upshaw is survived by his wife, Terri; and sons Daniel, Eugene Jr. and Justin.
Services were pending.