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Upshaw, Eugene Thurman, Jr. ("Gene")

UPSHAW, Eugene Thurman, Jr. ("Gene")

(b. 15 August 1945 in Robstown, Texas), offensive guard for the Oakland Raiders, named National Football League (NFL) Lineman of the Year in 1977 and played in Super Bowls II, VI, and XV; executive director of the NFL Players' Association.

Upshaw never planned to become a professional football player. He grew up with his brother Marvin, who also had a successful NFL career, playing baseball and picking cotton. His father, Eugene Upshaw, Sr., who worked as a meter reader for an oil company but had played semi-professional baseball, made a deal with his two oldest boys: if they performed well on the baseball field, they would not have to pick cotton in the hot sun. When Upshaw's pitching was less than spectacular, his brother, the catcher, would walk out to the mound and remind him of the alternative. Their mother, Cora Riley Upshaw, was employed as a domestic worker. Upshaw had been a baseball star in high school, and he had the potential to play professional baseball after graduating from Robstown High School, but his family encouraged him to attend Texas A&I in Kingsville, Texas, instead.

Upshaw entered A&I without any real ambitions, although he had some idea he might become a schoolteacher. He also entered without a scholarship, but three days after trying out for the football team, he was awarded one. Upshaw was only five feet, ten inches tall, and 185 pounds. At A&I, however, he quickly grew to six feet, five inches, and filled out to 255 pounds. He tried a number of positions on the football team, including fullback and tight end, with no real success. When on defense, he sometimes played an entire game without completing one tackle. In his senior year, Upshaw's college record left him as a possible third-round pick as an NFL offensive lineman, but no more. His status changed quickly, though; he performed well in the Senior Bowl and was chosen as the team captain during the summer College All-Star Game. Upshaw received a B.S. from Texas A&I in 1968. He also attended California State University in 1969 and Golden Gate University Law School in 1982.

Al Davis drafted Upshaw for the Oakland Raiders (now the Los Angeles Raiders) in 1967, believing the rookie would make the perfect match for lineman Buck Buchanan of the Kansas City Chiefs, then Oakland's main rival. The reserved Upshaw had doubts about playing for Oakland; the team had a reputation for being rough and rowdy. Also, his first lineup against the tough Kansas City lineman proved disastrous, but even Buchanan realized that Upshaw had the potential to make a great offensive guard. He was large, allowing him to match up against defensive tackles, and he also had the speed to sweep out in front of running backs. Upshaw earned a starting position his first year and helped the Raiders win the American Football League (AFL) championship in 1967. The team lost Super Bowl II, however, to the Green Bay Packers, 33–14. Upshaw married Jimmye Hill 30 December 1967; they had one son but later divorced. He married Teresa Buich in 1986; they had two sons. Upshaw began a six-year period of service with the U.S. Army in 1967, but this did not interfere with his career.

The six-foot-five offensive guard, "was always a little hyper," wrote John Madden in Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!). "Always up, always happy. If you were down and you talked to him, you soon were up." Madden also noted that "being a leader came naturally to Gene." Owner Davis often conferred with Upshaw and one or two of his teammates when considering a new player for the Raiders. The press also recognized his intelligence, encircling Upshaw in the locker room after a game as though he were the quarterback. Beginning in 1973, Upshaw became offensive team captain, a position he held for nine years. From 1976 to 1981 he also served on the Executive Committee of the National Football Leagues Players' Association, a collective bargaining organization.

Upshaw played for Oakland during many of their most successful years. In 1976 Oakland's 13–1 record placed them at the head of their division, and they defeated New England 24–21 in the first-round playoff game. Many expected a difficult challenge in the follow-up game against the defending champions, the Steelers, but the Raiders won a decisive 24–7 victory. The Raiders came out strong against the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, scoring on three successive drives and leading 16–0 at halftime. While the Vikings scored a touchdown in the third quarter, two fourth-quarter touchdowns by Oakland gave the team a 32–14 victory in their first Super Bowl title. It was four years before the Raiders returned to the Super Bowl. In 1980 the Raiders finished with a lackluster 11–5 season, but nonetheless defeated Houston 27–7 in the Wild Card Game. After winning the American Football Conference (AFC; the AFL changed names in 1970) title 34–27 against the Chargers, Oakland returned to the Super Bowl for the third time, facing the Philadelphia Eagles. The Raiders went up 14–0 early, and the Eagles never caught up. With a final score of 27–10, Oakland won Super Bowl XV and became the first Wild Card team to win the championship. Upshaw is the only player to appear in three Super Bowls in three different decades.

Upshaw retired in 1981 after sixteen seasons as a player. In 1983 however, he decided to combine his love of football with politics: he became executive director of the NFL Players' Association. His experience as a member of the association and as a player placed him in a good position to work with the complex issues of labor negotiations. Upshaw played an important role during the strike negotiations in 1982. He worked with Ed Garvey, the executive director of the Players' Association, to reach an agreement with the NFL. Although he received criticism for his heavy-handed methods, Upshaw remained trusted by the players, and this trust helped him secure the position of executive director when Garvey stepped down the following year. Long active in Democratic politics, Upshaw championed issues such as the right of free agency and the need for more minorities in coaching positions.

Upshaw played 217 games for the Raiders, missing only one league game during his entire career. He played in eleven playoff games, won eight division titles, and appeared in three Super Bowls. In 1973 and 1974 he was named AFC Lineman of the Year, and in 1977 was voted top lineman in the NFL. Along with his football career, Upshaw has been honored for humanitarian activities and his work with civic, community, and charitable organizations. Since 1983 he has served as the executive director of the Executive Committee of the NFL Players' Association, defending the rights of NFL players. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, his first year of eligibility.

A brief overview of Upshaw's career can be found in David L. Porter, ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football (1987). Anecdotes about Upshaw are in John Madden, Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!) (1984). For a discussion of the offensive lineman's career, see Nathan Aaseng, Football ' s Crushing Blockers (1982). A lengthy portrait is in Frank Deford, "Bonus Piece: The Guard Who Would Be Quarterback," Sports Illustrated (14 Sept. 1987).

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

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