Gene Upshaw, who died late Wednesday at age 63, will be remembered by the current generation of pro football fans as the tall, urbane, articulate, passionate man who led the NFL Players Association.
But I'm an old man, so I have different memories. When I was a teen, before John Madden became a video game and kids actually stepped outside into the light of day now and again to exercise more than their thumbs, Buck Buchanan was my favorite football player.
He was a monster, a brute. Buck was a 6-foot-7, 287-pound defensive tackle who played for the Kansas City Chiefs and there had never been a better one than this giant from Grambling, so big and fast and agile, who could run from sideline to sideline and cast aside offensive linemen like they were paper dolls and gobble up runners and make quarterbacks wish they'd taken out more insurance.
He was the first African-American to be picked No. 1 in any draft (1963) by a pro football team and he was merely unstoppable, unblockable, un-everything-able. He helped make the Chiefs the premier team in the old American Football League. And then Gene Upshaw came along.
It has been suggested that the Oakland Raiders drafted the 6-5, 255-pound Upshaw in 1967 out of little-known Texas A&I for the sole purpose of lining up against Buck Buchanan, and there's no reason to argue with that logic.
The rivalry - Buchanan vs. Upshaw and the Chiefs vs. the Raiders - became legendary, born and bred in a different era. Buchanan started 166 straight games, played in eight Pro Bowls and was on two of the first four Super Bowl teams, including an upset winner in January of 1970, when the Chiefs stunned the Minnesota Vikings. Upshaw played in 207 straight regular-season games during a 15-year career with the Raiders, was a seven-time Pro Bowl pick and played on three Super Bowl teams, two of them victorious, in three different decades.
Upshaw, for my money, was the first great offensive guard in NFL history and one of the two or three best, period, along with John Hannah and Larry Little. And that isn't meant as any disrespect to the great Jim Parker, arguably the greatest O-lineman of all time, who went from Scott High to Ohio State to Baltimore to pass block for Johnny Unitas. Parker was a guard at OSU, but spent much of his pro career tormenting defensive ends and protecting Unitas from a tackle slot.
Upshaw didn't do badly for himself after his playing days ended, either.
Oh, sure, there were tough times. Strikes in 1982 - the aftermath of which was Upshaw's first challenge - and '87 accomplished little and left the union bloodied if not almost beaten. The NFLPA even decertified itself at one point in a convoluted legal battle to achieve free agency for its members. Upshaw got more than his share of criticism over 25 years at the helm, including that he was a marionette with his good friend, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, pulling the strings to the advantage of the owners.
But last time I checked, the NFL's players indeed have free agency, they get about 60 per cent of the league revenues with ever-increasing salary caps, and there is revenue sharing that Upshaw insisted upon so that all franchises enjoy equal financial health that allows them all to pay equally high salaries. The most recent bargaining agreement was so good for the players, in fact, that owners just opted out of it.
Yes, Gene Upshaw was a load to handle, in the trenches and in the board rooms, from start to finish.
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