His Oakland Raider teammates used to call Gene Upshaw "The Governor." He was a power-blocking, pulling guard who filibustered as an All-Pro and who ranked as one of the smoothest locker-room politicos anyone ever saw. One moment he was Mean Gene and then--blink!--he was Clean Gene in gabardine.
"Gene was the prototype big guard who ran like a deer. He used to tell our tailbacks, 'Run the sweep my way and see if you can catch me,' " recalled former Raider tackle Art Shell, now a Raider assistant coach. "He was always talking and politicking, too. We always knew he'd go toward politics."
The challenges are different now for Upshaw, 41. He is the executive director of the National Football League Players Assn. and also serves as a member of the AFL-CIO executive committee.
Former NFLPA leader Ed Garvey, the man Upshaw replaced in 1983, came to the players' union from the legal sector. Upshaw came from the football sector and feels a tighter bond with players because of that.
"I had to tape my ankles to go to work, too," is the way Upshaw puts it.
At the NFLPA convention in Los Angeles last March, players spoke of Upshaw with respect and a sense of fellowship.
"I'd rather have a former player leading us than any hired counsel," Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason said.
One union official said Upshaw could be seen before one meeting discussing blocking techniques with offensive linemen, hunching over into various positions to emphasize his points.
"Gene's like a coach who used to play the game--he understands our needs," said Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary. And Minnesota punter Greg Coleman said, "In '82, I said, 'I'm through with the union.' Back then, you didn't know who or what to believe. But Gene's being upfront with everyone. I don't know any NFL player who doesn't respect Gene."
Upshaw is about to take his position--along with the owners' chief negotiator, Jack Donlan--front and center on the NFL stage. This is a negotiating year, sometimes referred to as a strike year by watchdogs of recent NFL negotiating history (players struck in the bargaining years of 1970, 1974 and 1982).
The current collective-bargaining agreement expires Aug. 31 and opening proposals were exchanged in Washington on April 20. Upshaw's union seeks an unconditional free agency and more guaranteed contracts, among its eight primary "horizontal" objectives, and this puts players on a collision course with the owners, who have said they won't yield on such points.
It's conceivable that soon after Upshaw is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 8, he will lead the players on strike.
Nevertheless, Upshaw and the players remain cautiously optimistic that a compromise will be reached without a work stoppage. The players' belligerence of 1982, when Garvey led them on a 57-day strike that wiped out seven weeks worth of games, has disappeared largely for two reasons: the change in union leadership from Garvey to Upshaw and the players' enhanced economic status. The average NFL player salary is $205,000, up from $90,000 in 1981, according to union data.
Because of the players' economic gains and because the owners reportedly lost $200 million in revenue during the 1982 strike, officials on both sides believe everyone has too much to lose in another strike and-or lockout. Maybe that's why Raider tight end Todd Christensen said of the players' convention, "This carries none of the rancor of five years ago."
Upshaw said he believes he has nearly achieved the four primary goals he set in 1983, upon becoming union executive director: to restore the players' confidence in the union, much of which had been shattered after the 1982 strike; to create financial stability in the union; to regain public confidence in the union; and to reopen lines of communication that had broken down during Garvey's acrimonious tenure.
Although the NFLPA, for budgetary reasons, has trimmed its staff since 1982, the key advisers to the executive director remain largely the same. Upshaw's three principal advisers are Dick Berthelsen, who remains as general counsel, and former players Doug Allen and Mark Murphy, both of whom hold the title of assistant executive director. (Allen joined the union in 1981; Murphy served as the Redskins' player representative in 1982 and, three years later, replaced Brig Owens, who left the union in 1983 to become a player agent.)
Union officials say Garvey controlled all aspects of the NFLPA during the 1982 strike: the legal side, the financial side, every side. Garvey had built up so much bitterness in his dealings with management over his dozen years with the union, officials say, that he was driven to take singular hold of the NFLPA in 1982. Even Garvey says his relationship with Donlan was so poor in 1982 that it stunted progress in negotiations.