He established his legacy as a leader and pioneer of players’ rights in the National Football League (NFL), and was known best for his passion and respect for the game.
He is credited with having moved the business of football to a level never before imagined.
He is Eugene Upshaw, a powerhouse labor leader, who died Aug. 20 at his vacation home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. a week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upshaw was 63 years old.
As the executive director of the NFL Players Association in 1983, he became the first African American to head a major sports union. In that role, Upshaw helped give the game a total makeover even battling in court numerous times, and fighting for players’ free agency rights, better wages and health benefits.
One of his key concerns was the free agency rights of players. Prompted by the impasse over this issue, four years after being elected executive director, Upshaw lead the players on a 15-day players’ strike. An embarrassing stream of games with replacement “scab” players revealed the NFL’s desperation, and by 1989, the union’s persistent demands yielded a limited form of contract freedom called Plan B.
But players were still unsatisfied.
By 1993 with Upshaw leading the battle, free agency rights were finally granted. Today salary caps have tripled since 1994, granting players over $100 million a year or 60 percent of the teams’ revenue.
Before Upshaw changed the face of the NFL, he dominated as a left guard for the Oakland Raiders for 15 years. His career as a pro player began in 1967. His coaches immediately recognized his talent and switched him from tackle to a guard position. Upshaw was a seven time Pro-Bowler and was a driving force behind the Raiders’ two Super Bowl victories. He also served as the team captain for 10 years and was the only player to appear in the Super Bowl in three different decades–the 60s, the 70s and the 80s.
His friends, and even those who have opposed him, mourn his loss and called him a dynamic force within the sports community.
Upshaw was born to Eugene Sr. and Cora Aug. 15, 1945 in Robstown, Texas.
He and his three younger brothers earned money by picking cotton at $1.25 per 100 pounds. The only time the quartet were able to escape cotton picking was when they were playing baseball.
Ironically, although he played baseball it was in football that Upshaw made his mark. But football was not the sport of choice for Upshaw’s then small 5’10” frame in high school. He actually came to the sport late in his youth– after enrolling at Texas A & I University,.
There Upshaw tried out for the football team, and although he was not particularly fond of the violent nature of the sport, Upshaw’s talent stood out. Coach Gil Steinke was captivated by his skill and immediately granted him a scholarship.
By his senior year, Upshaw had reached a monstrous 6’5″ 265 pounds. After graduating, he was drafted by the Raiders in the first round pick as a tackle.