- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Commissioners, Hall of Famers and franchise owners came to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday to praise the late Gene Upshaw, a man whom former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said had more impact on sports than anyone who ever played a game.

Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard for the Oakland Raiders from 1967 to 1981, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 20, five days after his 63rd birthday. He served as the executive director of the NFL Players Association for 25 years.

“You knew from Day 1 he was going to be special,” said Hall of Famer John Madden, who joined the Raiders as an assistant the same year Oakland drafted Upshaw in the first round out of Texas A&I. “Gene Upshaw was a guy I went to, a guy I could always talk to. He accomplished so much.”

A tearful Madden couldn’t finish his remarks, but Upshaw usually left others smiling.

“Everybody felt good around Gene,” said Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen, a Raiders teammate. “He was never down. How many other guys could have done what he did for the players? There were a lot of wires he had to balance on, and Gene was able to do it. There just aren’t many like him. Gene was in another league.”

Former Raiders coach Art Shell also choked up about the health-conscious Upshaw ignoring the warning signs of the disease, which was diagnosed three days before his death.

“It was an honor to play with Gene,” said Shell, who played next to Upshaw for 14 seasons. “He could run like a deer, and he was so explosive. We used to call him Governor because he was so outgoing like a politician. Gene cared so much for others, but in the end he didn’t care enough about himself. The National Football League has peace and prosperity because Gene and Paul Tagliabue were able to come together [to reach a historic collective bargaining agreement in 1993]. Gene left a footprint on football. They’ll be big shoes to fill. Whoever the next person is, he won’t be Gene Upshaw.”

Roger Goodell, who succeeded Tagliabue in 2006, isn’t worried about that now even though the CBA’s continuity in 2010 is threatened. The owners opted out of its terms in May.

“One of the great things about people who are successful is that they leave their organizations in a better place, and Gene certainly did that,” Goodell said.

“In a crazy way, it might be good to have someone starting off with a clean slate rather than trying to measure up to the past,” Tagliabue added.

Longtime NFLPA counsel Richard Berthelsen has replaced Upshaw on an interim basis, but former NFLPA presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong and former executive board member Robert Smith are expected to be contenders when the union votes on a successor next year.

Vincent told the Associated Press Upshaw was “one of the greatest union leaders in history. Gene’s words and invaluable lessons as a man and mentor will live on in my life.”

Smith and Vincent attended the memorial service Tuesday. Armstrong spoke and described Upshaw as “the strongest person I’ve ever been around. There were never problems, only challenges. He never let anybody see him sweat. He carried his burdens so easily.”

But Tagliabue said he advised Upshaw earlier this year to retire because his close friend seemed unhappy after 25 years in such a demanding position. Upshaw vowed to stay on and work with Goodell to fix the CBA’s problems.

“Gene pursued a course of a dramatic change in football with a deep conviction,” Tagliabue said. “He had an intensity to excel. He lived a life of uncommon achievement. He was one of a kind, a genuine rural Texas original who became an American classic. It falls to us to ensure going forward that his legacy forever guides what we do in football.”



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