Gene Upshaw, 63, the first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman and longtime head of the NFL Players Association, died late Wednesday of pancreatic cancer.
“We at the Green Bay Packers today were saddened to learn of the passing of Gene Upshaw,” Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy said in a release issued by the team.
“Gene was a Hall of Fame player who very much appreciated the game and all its traditions and history. Through his leadership on behalf of the players, he helped to strengthen the game and grow the popularity and success it enjoys today.”
Upshaw at one turn was accused of being too cozy with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and at another turn was the target of a coup attempt by some of the players he represents.
As the saying goes, you know you’re doing a good job when all parties are displeased. Fact is, players as well as the teams grew extremely wealthy during Upshaw’s reign.
“I was impressed that he always had the best interests of the game in the forefront, even though he remained a strong advocate for the players,” said Murphy, who worked with Upshaw as a player representative while with the Washington Redskins and was the union’s assistant executive director in 1985. “At the end of the day he always wanted to do what was right for the game.”
While Upshaw was unable to win guaranteed contracts from the owners — though the guaranteed money in signing bonuses is a fine substitute — the players saw their wages skyrocket during Upshaw’s tenure with the advent of free agency and the game’s soaring popularity. When the salary cap was introduced in 1994, the ceiling was $34.6 million. In 2008, that figure is a whopping $116 million.
Upshaw’s leadership — he agreed to a salary cap against the wishes of many of the rank and file — was huge for the Packers and the NFL in general.
“He was more of a partner, because he'd played the game, and he realized it was a team game, and so when concepts like the salary cap were discussed in the early ’90s, Upshaw bought into them,” Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote. “Why? He knew if there was a cadre of owners spending twice as much as Green Bay or Cincinnati, the Packers and Bengals would eventually have the same problem competing as do the lower-revenue teams in baseball. ... He knew it was the best thing long-term for competitive balance.”
Without Upshaw’s for-the-good-of-everyone vision, some critical times for the Packers are about to become even more uncertain. Owners opted out of the CBA in May, leading to the possibility the salary cap will disappear forever. Without the cap, the small-market Packers could be doomed to become the NFL’s version of the Milwaukee Brewers or Minnesota Twins.
For the good of the league — and as a fitting tribute to Upshaw — let’s hope the NFLPA finds a successor with Upshaw’s extraordinary vision.
Bill Huber is editor of Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at email@example.com
Wolf on Upshaw
Former Packers GM Ron Wolf worked in Oakland's personnel department when the Raiders drafted Upshaw in the first round of the 1967 draft. The Packers released this statement from Wolf.
“I think his record certainly speaks for itself. He was captain of the team, he’s in the Hall of Fame, and he was a tremendous leader.
“The thing that sticks out most in my mind is he just lined up and played. You could depend on him in practice and you could depend on him in the game. As a player, he left a tremendous legacy because, in my way of thinking, he was the consummate pro.
“Football was very important to him, being a good football player was very important to him, and representing the Raiders well was also very important to him. He’s the kind of guy you would want to have on your team.
“My recollection of Gene Upshaw is one of respect for what he did, what he accomplished, and how he accomplished it.”