NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw was sitting in a hotel lounge in Indianapolis one evening in February 2006 when Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill walked into the room. Upshaw dutifully got up and exchanged pleasantries with Bidwill, then returned to his seat to continue a conversation.
"That's exactly the person we're fighting with on every issue," Upshaw said. Upshaw then went on to recount a story about how he had a long-standing fight with Bidwill over medical benefits for Steve Little, a former Cardinals player who was paralyzed in an auto accident.
Upshaw was asked how he could look Bidwill in the eye after a petty battle over what amounted to pennies in the big picture of the NFL.
"You have to know your enemy," Upshaw said.
And ultimately, that will be Upshaw's legacy for many.
"Gene was the rare man who could go through a knock down, drag out fight and then be able to put that aside and forge a productive relationship with the other side," former NFLPA president and defensive end Trace Armstrong said Thursday. Armstrong became a player representative in 1990 and currently serves as a union advisor. He knows all too well the battle of the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in free agency and eventually a staggering growth in player salaries and benefits.
"The period from '87 to '93 was a death match between the union and league," said Armstrong, who played with the Bears, Dolphins and Raiders. "People have no idea of the personal attack Gene took, some real cloak-and-dagger stuff from the ownership side. Yet he was able to go from there and become a good partner with the league to keep the game strong."
Sadly, Upshaw didn't know his final enemy until the very end. He was told Sunday, two days after turning 63, he had pancreatic cancer – a disease that attacks the body quickly and without much warning. Late Wednesday, Upshaw died at his home in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
On Thursday, the union's executive council and player reps held an emergency meeting and unanimously voted to have union attorney Richard Berthelsen take over as the acting executive director.
But filling Upshaw's 25-year legacy will be a different matter.
Upshaw, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman with the Raiders, led the union the way he played, cutting a successful-yet-turbulent path. He was criticized on an almost constant basis by people such as television reporter Bryant Gumbel and former player Bernie Parrish. In return, Upshaw would usually go on the attack, holding no punches and creating controversy on his own.
At one point, Upshaw went so far as to say he felt like he wanted to break the neck of fellow Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure after harsh criticism from DeLamielleure about the lack of medical benefits for retired players. In return, DeLamielleure compared Upshaw to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
While all of that made Upshaw a focal point of debate, members of the NFLPA, including player representative Matt Stover and executive council member Kevin Carter, were in agreement about one thing: History will record that Upshaw's work for the players was extraordinary.
"Most of the people who I hear criticizing Gene have no understanding of what he has done for this union," Stover, who has had the rare privilege of serving as a team player representative for 16 years, said earlier this preseason. "They don't know what the union was like when Gene took over and what it is now."
Or as Mickey Yaris-Davis, the long-time benefits director for the union said a year ago: "When Gene took over, we didn't even have money in the bank to make sure everybody got paid. There were plenty of times when I wasn't sure if my paycheck was going to bounce. Now … it's not even a comparison what the players have in terms of both benefits and strength of the union."
Armstrong said that when Upshaw became executive director of the union in 1983, the union was essentially bankrupt. To add insult, the previous union leadership had sold off future rights to revenue to bankroll the union to that point. In short, the union had no money and no future. Furthermore, a 1987 strike against the league fell apart when players crossed the picket lines.
Through those years, Upshaw did not take full salary. Eventually, Upshaw guided the players to federal court where the union made significant gains, took the NFLPA from being a collection of sheep to a group that now wields significant power over the game.
"When you look at the growth in salaries alone, you understand what Gene has done," Carter, a defensive lineman with Tampa Bay, said in July. "Gene's biggest job for the players was as a negotiator, to take what the executive council asked for and get it. Every time he went in with the owners, he got what we asked for and usually more."
Under Upshaw, NFL players were able to gain free agency in 1993 under the collective bargaining agreement. That agreement was forced after Upshaw took the step to decertify the NFLPA and fight the league in court.
By 2006, Upshaw had reversed the leverage so much that NFL owners agreed to an extension of the CBA that gave NFL players a larger share of gross revenues than their counterparts in baseball, basketball and hockey.
Even those who criticized Upshaw within the union ranks recognized his leadership.
"No one leads without controversy," a player rep said Thursday. "Gene didn't always listen and he was stubborn. But he knew what he was doing."
Now, that knowledge of history is gone on the eve of a critical period. The NFL and the union are expected to hold negotiations in the coming months over an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. The deadline for an extension is March. While many believe the union can function with Berthelsen running the show, the need to have long-term leadership is critical. Among those who have expressed interest in the job in the past have been Armstrong and fellow former NFLPA president Troy Vincent. Other player representatives have suggested that the union hire as head an attorney with extensive labor background, such as current union negotiator Jeffrey Kessler.
Whoever ultimately takes the reins will follow a man whose legacy is only now starting to be understood.
"The players in this league have never had a better friend than Gene Upshaw," Armstrong said. "He's one of the most gifted negotiators I ever saw and I've never seen a guy better under stress. He never showed doubt or fatigue, even in the darkest days."
- Gene Upshaw