Now 37, Gene Upshaw is in his second two-year term as president of the National Football League Players Association, and his 16th season with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. In his salad days Upshaw was an All-Pro offensive guard nine times, and although he lost his starting job last year and has been sidelined this season with a shoulder injury, he remains the team captain, an honor he has held 12 straight years.
When not busy with the Raiders or the union, Upshaw is involved with multitudinous causes in the Bay area. He has served as the chairman of the American Cancer Society chapter in Alameda County and has worked on behalf of the March of Dimes, the Salvation Army, Sickle Cell Anemia, Easter Seals and Cystic Fibrosis. Active in politics as a member of the Democratic Central Committee in Alameda County since 1970, he has campaigned for L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and Governor Jerry Brown, both friends.
"I've always had the need to help and be involved," Upshaw says. "I couldn't be a nine-to-five person. I've got to be involved, to speak for those who don't have a spokesman. It's no secret that I have political ambitions when my playing career is over. I'm really interested in Congress."
Born and raised in Robstown, Texas, on the Gulf Coast near Corpus Christi, Upshaw was the first of three sons born to Cora and Eugene Upshaw Sr.; the senior Upshaw, who is now on the Robstown city council, was a meter reader for an oil company for 26 years until he lost a leg because of a circulation problem. One of Gene's brothers, Marvin, played for Cleveland, Kansas City and St. Louis for nine years. Athletic ability runs in the family. Their cousin, Willie Upshaw, is the first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays. "Willie plays in a sport where you can get compensated for what you do," says Gene.
Upshaw's great love as a boy was baseball. A strong hitter for Robstown High, he was sought by the Pirates, the Phillies and the Astros. "I wanted to go with Pittsburgh," Upshaw says. "My father said, 'You're going to college, boy.' "
Upshaw went to Texas A&I, only 24 miles away in Kingsville, an easy commute. The school had a football team but no baseball team, and as Upshaw says, "I hated football. I was a walk-on, but three days later I had a full scholarship, and four years after that I was the number one draft choice of the Oakland Raiders and captain of the College All-Star football team."
Upshaw made all-AFL his rookie year and played against the Packers in Super Bowl II. His involvement with the union began that year. "Dave Grayson, our player rep, said, 'Look, rookie, here's a card. Sign it and pay your dues.' I didn't know if I had a choice or not. Then after I did join, I wanted to know what was going on." When Upshaw went on the executive committee, he started spending a lot of time with NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey, and they're close friends today.
The solidarity handshakes that angered the owners during the exhibition season were Upshaw's idea. "People don't realize this," he says, "but we have 1,500 guys scattered all over the place. There is a 25 percent turnover each year. It's hard to know each other. You see a guy in a rep meeting, and you don't know who he is. The last time you saw him, he had a helmet on and there were bars in front of his face. If every rep came to the meeting with his number on, you'd know who he is. Management has worked that well. They want us to think we're animals. They want to tell us what time to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear. What we're going to show them now is not just a matter of economics, it's a matter of dignity. A worker has a right to bargain. Think about the movie The Elephant Man. Here was this guy with a bag over his head, and he screamed and said, 'I am a human being.' We wear helmets and shoulder pads, and we're saying, 'We're human beings.' We want to be heard. Without the players, there is nothing. We say to management, you can't own me, but together we can function."
In his rookie year Upshaw married Jimmye Hill, his college sweetheart, and they have a 12-year-old son, Eugene III. In his spare time, Upshaw plays golf well enough ("about a four handicap") to beat Garvey, who got his freshman letter in the sport at Wisconsin. Upshaw's latest love is downhill skiing, which he took up three years ago and describes as "the most exciting thing I've done in my life." To which Garvey adds, "He's really good at scaring little old ladies on the slopes. There's nothing like looking uphill and seeing Upshaw [who is 6'5", 255 pounds] bearing down on you at 50 miles an hour." Whether or not Upshaw proves to be as good at scaring the NFL remains to be seen.
Upshaw says the issue is one of dignity.