Onward: Gene Upshaw (1945-2008)

The players finally got him.

That was the first response I received from one of my friends after I informed several them via email that Gene Upshaw had died.

And that’s a shame.

Upshaw deserves better. Much better.

He deserves better because he was a player, and because his personal mandate was always clear: protect and survive.

And for 41 years, that is exactly what he did.

Upshaw was a trenches guy.

In 245 regular season and postseason NFL games, he protected and survived the trenches. He protected quarterbacks for the Oakland Raiders and survived to play in three Super Bowls over three decades – the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s – one of only three players to do so. (Who were the other two? Take a guess.)

A trenches guy.

Since 1983, he protected NFL players and survived amid vociferous criticism from former and, lately, even current players that he was not doing enough.

This season, the players will earn 60 percent of NFL revenues under a salary cap of $116 million, the highest in league history. But for some, the ones who charged Upshaw was too “cozy” with NFL management and owners, it wasn’t enough.

Former players had the biggest beef, arguing that today’s millionaire players owed them something more for paving the way. Some were indeed suffering financially and many suffer physically. Their beef: At least pay for my medical care.

At least.

They had a point, but Upshaw should not have been their only target. The NFL was partly culpable but somehow all the fire landed on Upshaw, who often contended that his job was to protect his clients: current players.

That was the stubborn gene inside Gene (perhaps the same one that prevented him from seeking medical attention until his wife persuaded him to go the hospital on Sunday, the day he learned he had pancreatic cancer). That was the protect and survive Gene.

In recent years, he tried to argue that pensions for former players had been enhanced tremendously and that in many cases former players earned more in retirement than they did as players.

But it wasn’t enough. Not when a parade of ailing former players continued to hammer away, as if in the trenches of a game without a clock.

The players finally got to him.

Gene Upshaw learned something early in life that many of us never grasp: You can’t please everyone. Not even close. And you can certainly die trying.

Upshaw died while still doing his best for those he protected. And he survived. And he deserves to be remembered for that.

Art Courtesy of the Manheim Touchdown Club

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