Raiders Hall-of-Famer and long-time NFLPA chief Gene Upshaw has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 63. “Few people in the history of the National Football League have played the game as well as Gene and then had another career in football with so much positive impact on the structure and competitiveness of the entire league as Gene,” said former commissioner Paul Tagliabue upon news of Upshaw’s death. Upshaw made 7 Pro Bowls as an offensive guard with the Silver and Black and won 2 Super Bowls. He became executive director of the players’ association in 1983, and served in that capacity through the strike year of 1987 and on into the 1990s which saw the beginnings of free agency and the salary cap. He came under fire from some quarters for not being tough enough in his negotiations with the league, and was savaged with particular gusto by Vikings union rep Matt Birk who said in a 2006 interview:
Don’t put this in the paper … no, wait, go ahead and put it in. Gene Upshaw is a piece of [expletive]. Too many guys in the league just accept whatever Gene says. I don’t know why no one has called this guy out.
Birk offered this by way of elaboration:
When you go to those CBA meetings, you always feel like you’re being sold something instead of being given the straight facts. Through all the meetings leading up to this, it was always: “The owners don’t want an uncapped year. We’ll get a deal, and if we don’t, so what? There will be an uncapped year and there will be crazy money out there.”
The reality is that’s not the case. And you’re seeing that it’s not the leverage we were told it would be.
His past sparring matches with Upshaw guaranteed Birk would be one of the first people asked to react upon Upshaw’s death. The Pro Bowler said:
He came up to me [during the controversy] and said, “You know, The funny thing is I think we both want the same thing.” We kind of agreed to disagree. But, obviously, you look at the life he led and all the things he accomplished, it’s pretty amazing. And he certainly leaves a legacy. He certainly made an impact in a lot of ways in the NFL.
Raiders owner Al Davis gets the last word:
He was and will remain a part of the fabric of our lives and of the Raider mystique and legacy. We loved him and he loved us. We will miss him.