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Papa Gene : As a Pro Bowl Guard and More Recently a Representative, Upshaw Has Been Unshakable on the NFL Players' Behalf

June 12, 1993|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Upshaw, the labor leader who ran the campaign that won free agency for pro football, was both captain and player rep of the Raiders during their winning era.

And as they tell it now, they have never known a more inspirational leader than the old pro who has spent the last 10 of his 47 years struggling against the NFL's 28 club owners.

Former Raiders remember that five days before one Super Bowl game, Upshaw, then a veteran Pro Bowl guard, stood up in a team meeting and told the coaches: "Don't look so worried--we'll be ready. I've heard that you want a curfew starting Friday night, but we're changing all that. We're starting the curfew tonight."

Then he glared around the room to see if anyone disagreed. Nobody did.

And presently, the well-rested Raiders won the game.

"Gene knew he could (set curfews) because he always knows what football players are thinking," Richard Berthelsen, his chief counsel, said the other day.

That, in fact, is what Upshaw is all about. His interest in the attitudes, ambitions, and preferences of his associates has been there since long before he joined the NFL Players Assn. as executive director in 1983.

Exhibit A: His friends say that during Upshaw's playing career, he knew every other player in the league. He remains the only one who has played in Super Bowls of three decades, and from first to last, he had two priorities: winning and cultivating relationships.

"Gene is a born politician," said his former Raider roommate, Art Shell, now the club's coach. "We used to call him 'Governor.' "

Said Doug Allen, the NFLPA's assistant executive director: "I remember the day that Gene went down a list of nearly 1,000 players and told me how each of them differed on a (controversial matter)."

Exhibit B: After a week on the road earlier this year, when Upshaw returned to his Washington office and picked up 47 telephone messages--from his lawyers, his wife, friends, co-workers, newspaper reporters, player Freeman McNeil and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue--he placed the stack on his desk in the order of priority.

And returned McNeil's call first.

"In this shop, nobody ever comes before a player," Upshaw said.

With that commitment and some realistic, well-defined goals, plus perseverance and the help of an efficient organization, Upshaw has in recent months forged three historic achievements:

--As an AFL-CIO vice president, Upshaw has emerged as one of the most powerful labor leaders in America.

Said AFL-CIO chief Bill Robertson: "Our three bright lights are Richard Trumka of the Mine Workers, Ron Carey of the Teamsters and Upshaw."

--Along the way, Upshaw, one of hundreds who have fought the NFL over the years, became the first to bring the league to its knees. Pro football's club owners, united and unbending, had held off free agency for three-quarters of a century before Upshaw dropped them this year--in the courts and at the bargaining table--freeing hundreds of players.

--Upshaw can already look back on a lifetime of extraordinary success in two prominent, very different careers. Of the thousands who have played pro football since Jim Thorpe and Red Grange, Upshaw is one of only 165 in the Hall of Fame.

And of the thousands who have led labor unions since Samuel Gompers, Upshaw is one of the few who have been spectacularly successful.

Said Tagliabue: "The (explanation) is that Gene showed the same level of ability at the NFLPA that he had shown on the field."

THE UNION LEADER WHO KILLED HIS OWN UNION

Only 5 1/2 years ago, Upshaw and his players hit bottom. The union had gone out on a strike that the NFL's club owners broke with what they called replacement teams. The players called them scab teams.

Then, after voting to end that strike in time for the sixth weekend of a torn season, the NFLPA learned that the owners had decided to teach the players another lesson, locking them out--without pay--for still another week.

"(The owners) rubbed their noses in it," former commissioner Pete Rozelle said.

Or, possibly, Upshaw hit his low point a few months later in a St. Louis courthouse. That day, a U.S. Appeals Court ruled that although a 1982 bargaining agreement had lapsed, the players were still bound by its provisions--meaning that the NFL, standing on its old antitrust exemption, could deny them free agency indefinitely.

Depressed but unyielding, Upshaw called his staff together in Washington the next morning to consider a new game plan.

He could have signed with the owners on their terms, and resumed the NFLPA's age-old bargaining for incidental perks, such as more meal money. He could have started another court case in a different district, and hoped for a better result. He could have resigned.

He didn't have to destroy his own union.

But he did.

"If the owners can hide behind antitrust for as long as we're a union, then we won't be a union anymore," Upshaw said.

The surprise action to decertify the union provoked doubts, but is regarded today as one of the boldest moves ever made by a union leader.

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