As a player, Gene Upshaw was unlike most guards.
He loaded his forearms with extra amounts of padding to prepare for the opposition. Offensive linemen, guards in particular, protect quarterbacks in relative anonymity. But Upshaw knew offenses needed to knock people over to move forward. Upshaw knocked opponents down as well as any blocker who ever played in the NFL, and he didn’t do it quietly.
Upshaw took the same approach as a labor leader. Working with Ed Garvey, the first NFLPA executive director who brought up the notion of getting a revenue share for the players from owners, Upshaw verbally knocked down opponents of the union’s efforts to advance. He talked tough and conceded little. If a strike were needed, Upshaw policed his union with a firm hand to prevent a group of 2,000-plus dues-paying members from turning into 2,000-plus individuals who would buckle under pressure.
As a player and union leader, Upshaw was all about team, all about protection and, most importantly, all about the game. His loss comes with the NFL at a crossroads after two decades of labor peace that Upshaw helped foster with retired commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Without Upshaw — the NFLPA executive director since 1983 — the NFL is like a quarterback vulnerable to a blind-side blitz. There is no succession plan for the NFLPA. The plan for getting future labor peace was in Upshaw’s mind because he had all the relationships and all the background to get a deal done.