Between 1967 and 1981, NFL defenders experienced real fear when they spied Gene Upshaw headed in their direction.
Upshaw was a guard for the Oakland Raiders who thrived on dispensing brute force and bad intentions on opponents.
🏆 2× Super Bowl Champion (XI, XV)
⭐ 6× Pro Bowl (1972–1977)
🏆 AFL Champion (1967)
⭐ AFL All-Star (1968)
💯 NFL 1970s All-Decade Team
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) August 15, 2022
On the flip side, teammates loved carrying the ball behind the clear lanes of “Highway 63.”
As part of several talented rosters filled with quirky individuals, Upshaw played in three Super Bowls, winning two.
After retiring, he became the executive director of the NFL Players Association.
This is the story of Gene Upshaw.
Life in Robstown
Eugene “Gene” Thurman Upshaw Jr. was born on August 15, 1945, in Robstown, Texas.
HOF G Gene Upshaw was born OTD in 1945. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1987. Played 15 seasons for the @Raiders. First player to play Guard exclusively to enter the Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/zLrypmPiUN
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 15, 2018
His early life was difficult, and Upshaw learned the value of hard work.
Both of Upshaw’s parents had jobs, but the family home had no running water, and the restroom was outside.
By the time he was seven, Upshaw toiled in the cotton fields during the summers with his two brothers, including his younger brother, Marvin.
It was difficult spending countless hours in the hot sun stuffing cotton in sacks just to make enough money to get by.
However, the Upshaw boys knew not to question their lot in life or their father, who set the ground rules.
“You just didn’t challenge him,” said Upshaw about his father years later.
Eugene Sr. gave out discipline on a fairly consistent basis, even if the boys misbehaved during church services.
It took a while, but the discipline finally took hold and helped shape the Upshaw boys.
Eventually, Marvin and Gene started playing baseball, and Eugene Sr. helped out at his sons’ games as an umpire and as the president of the local Little League.
Not Exactly Football Material
When the Upshaw brothers were students at Robstown High School, Marvin played football and was talented as a defensive lineman.
(Years later, he would face Gene numerous times as an NFL defensive lineman for three different teams.)
On the other hand, Gene was short and scrawny and only went out for the team because he wanted to play with a friend.
He was still a member of the JV team when he was a senior. Upshaw’s future plans certainly didn’t include playing in the NFL.
Bro. Gene Upshaw – Born in Robstown, Texas, and graduated from Robstown High School. He played college football at Texas A&I University (now Texas A&M University), where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. President of the NFL Players Association… pic.twitter.com/0q4lCfDbjq
— AΦA Zeta Alpha Ch. (@MizzouAlphas) February 7, 2022
In fact, Upshaw’s goal was to continue playing baseball and play in the major leagues as a pitcher.
His father had played semi-pro ball when he was younger, and Gene wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
As a senior, Upshaw was a light—and lightly used—athlete for the football team.
He graduated with no thought of ever playing the sport again.
Upshaw’s Football Future Gets a Jumpstart
Now that he was done with high school, Upshaw embarked on the next chapter of his life.
Because he was considered a good baseball product, several MLB teams contacted the Upshaws to see if Gene would be interested in playing pro ball.
One of those interested teams was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Upshaw envisioned a future with the organization.
His father, on the other hand, had different plans.
“I wanted to go with Pittsburgh,” Upshaw said in 1982. “My father said, ‘You’re going to college, boy.'”
He put the $75 he got from his father in his pocket and hitchhiked to Texas A&I (later renamed University of Texas, Kingsville).
The school was barely a half hour from home, but it might as well have been a different world.
Before classes began in the fall of 1963, Upshaw happened to walk by the football field and stopped to watch practice.
#DaysUntilTXCFB : 6️⃣3️⃣
Mike Singletary (Baylor)
Gene Upshaw (Texas A&I) pic.twitter.com/bAutbhq1xD
— Texas Sports Life (@TXSportsLife) June 28, 2019
The Javelinas’ head coach, Gil Steinke, spotted Upshaw off to the side and saw potential in the 6’0”, 200-pound freshman.
“Why don’t you go get a uniform and come out this afternoon?” Steinke asked.
At that point, Upshaw could have declined, and his future would have played out some other way.
However, he shrugged and agreed to return to the afternoon practice.
After only a few days, Steinke gave him a scholarship, and Upshaw’s destiny was cemented.
During his first year with the program, Steinke tried to find a spot for Upshaw.
Attempts at running back and tight end didn’t pan out, so the coach put Upshaw on the defensive line.
Oddly, Upshaw almost never made a tackle, baffling Steinke to the point of frustration.
Finally, Steinke put Upshaw on the offensive line almost out of desperation.
Thankfully, it turned out to be a revelation as Upshaw proved a natural at defending against onrushing attackers.
Even better, during the next few years, Upshaw hit a huge growth spurt until he was suddenly 6’5” and roughly 260 pounds.
He became a mauler on the line, and opponents learned to steer clear of him as much as possible.
Former Texas A&I Javelinas Darrell Green (Redskins), John Randle (Vikings), and the late Gene Upshaw (Raiders) have been selected to the NFL 100 All-Time Team! Congratulations! #tamuk @JavelinaFB @JavelinaNation #NFL100 @NFL pic.twitter.com/M230jz4JDO
— Jim Danner RGV Weather (@JimDannerWX) December 22, 2019
It wasn’t difficult to see Upshaw’s ability during games and his play helped both the Javelina team and his pro prospects.
By his senior year, Upshaw was selected as an All-Lone Star Conference member, and he was picked to participate in three college all-star games.
Before those games were played, Upshaw was considered a potential third-round pick in the upcoming 1967 NFL Draft.
After dominating each contest, and being selected as a team captain in one of the games, his draft stock skyrocketed.
Oakland Surprises Upshaw
Normally, an athlete from a small school at the time was lucky if he was drafted by a pro team.
Fortunately, Texas A&I was already well known due to Steinke’s ability to find good athletes and participate in numerous postseasons.
“We played some good football in Kingsville,” said Upshaw in 1996. “So we knew the scouts would find us.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Al Davis, the general manager and owner of the Oakland Raiders, loved the film he saw on Upshaw.
His scouts and other personnel men wanted to go in a different direction, but Davis’s title gave him the final word.
With the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 1967 draft, Oakland selected Upshaw.
— AFL Godfather #🟦🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) March 14, 2017
When he found out which team took him, Upshaw wasn’t happy.
Social media didn’t exist then, but Upshaw had heard the stories of the many shenanigans of the Raiders players through the years.
Davis seemed to delight in finding castoffs and malcontents.
He also had only one demand for his players: “Just win, baby!”
Despite his reservations about suiting up for Oakland, Davis talked Upshaw into becoming a member of the team.
The AFL was a night-and-day difference from Texas A&I, and Upshaw had a lot to learn.
He was placed on the offensive line next to veteran center Jim Otto and was bested at times by old-school defenders such as Kansas City’s Buck Buchanan.
His size and demeanor helped him keep opponents at bay, and Upshaw loved sweep plays.
“Running over those defensive backs is my biggest thrill in football and that’s why I just love the sweep,” said Upshaw. “If it was up to me we’d run it every play. I know football’s a team game and I know I have to sacrifice and all, but I still wish we’d just run sweeps all day.”
The number 63 was the last thing many opponents saw before getting pancaked to the turf.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) April 5, 2023
Upshaw was also unique in that he wrapped his arms in extra padding and what looked like a king’s ransom in athletic tape.
The padding just helped Upshaw deliver several forearm blows to those who got in his way.
Thinking of the great Gene Upshaw on what would've been his 75th birthday today. pic.twitter.com/MqXKI8nN41
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) August 15, 2020
As a rookie, it turned out that Upshaw had joined the Oakland franchise at just the right time.
In 1967, the team was led by quarterbacks George Blanda and Daryle Lamonica and imposed their will on the rest of the league.
Oakland ended the year with a 13-1 record and crushed the Houston Oilers in the AFL Championship game.
The Raiders then faced the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II.
Unfortunately, Coach Vince Lombardi’s crew was too much for the Raiders and cruised to a resounding 33-14 win.
Oakland’s loss in the Super Bowl led Davis to beat the bushes in search of more talent.
Davis inserted Shell next to Upshaw on the left side of the offensive line, and the two became fast friends.
They also became a nightmare for defenses.
— JUST KICKASS BABY (@VincentKellam) January 3, 2023
“They basically ran to the left,” said former NFL player and coach Tony Dungy. “If they ran 30 running plays, 28 of them were going to be that way. It was hard to slow them down, let alone stop them.”
The right side of the Oakland line was no slouch either and names such as John Vella, George Buehler, Dave Dalby, Henry Lawrence, and John Vella would soon join Upshaw and Shell.
“I would take that line and I think we’d be comparable to any group that’s ever played the game,” Shell said. “I’m not saying we were the best because that’s for others to say. But our group was pretty doggone good.”
From 1968 through 1970, the Raiders got to the AFC Championship game before losing each season to the Jets, Chiefs, and Colts, respectively.
— AFL Godfather #🟦🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) May 18, 2021
The 1970 season was also the first time when the league recognized Upshaw as an All-Pro.
More of the Same
By the early 1970s, the Raiders couldn’t believe their bad luck.
It was as if the franchise had suddenly been snakebitten and couldn’t return to the NFL’s biggest game.
In 1972, Oakland took its 10-3-1 record to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the Divisional round.
With under 30 seconds left, the Raiders seemingly had the contest in the bag until Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw a desperation pass to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua.
The ball then bounced off either Fuqua or Raiders safety Jack Tatum (who delivered a vicious blow) and flew through the air.
At the last second, Steelers running back Franco Harris snatched it out of the air.
Harris then took “The Immaculate Reception” 60 yards for the game-winning score.
Ken Stabler reflects the mood of the locker room in Pittsburgh after the Raiders stunning loss in the 1972 playoff game against the Steelers. 50 years later today the “Immaculate Reception” is a play that’s still considered the most controversial of calls & ending to an NFL game pic.twitter.com/CCMfXmDDrj
— Ken Stabler (@TheKenStabler) December 25, 2022
Then, between 1973 and 1975, Oakland advanced to the AFC title game again but lost to Miami in ‘73 and the hated Steelers in ‘74 and ‘75.
“We played in the Super Bowl when I was a rookie in 1967 and thought we would be back there every year,” Upshaw said. “But we kept losing in the playoffs and they said we couldn’t win the big one.”
Upshaw began a string of six straight Pro Bowls in 1972, but he couldn’t have cared less about individual accolades.
Just like the rest of his teammates, Upshaw wanted to play for a world title again.
Fortunately, that would soon happen.
Super Bowl XI
In 1976, the Raiders were loaded on both sides of the ball.
Upshaw and Shell helped the offense average 25 points per game, good for fourth overall in the league.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) November 13, 2022
Oakland won 13 games and eliminated New England in the Divisional round.
The Raiders then met the Steelers for the third year in a row for the AFC Championship.
At long last, Oakland vanquished their nemesis, 24-7.
Next up came the Minnesota Vikings and their “Purple People Eaters” defense in Super Bowl XI.
Throughout the contest, Upshaw, Shell, and the Raiders line flummoxed the People Eaters and Oakland won easily, 32-14.
“Gene was a nightmare for us,” said Vikings defensive end Carl Eller years later. “He was a tough, rugged guy to play against. Gene was the pilot of that great offense.”
Upshaw Reaches Another Super Bowl
Oakland returned to the postseason in 1977 and was upended by the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game.
Although the Raiders lost to the Broncos’ “Orange Crush” defense, the Denver coaching staff realized they had dodged a bullet.
“The Raiders had a great running team back then and Gene and Art were the reason for it,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier. “You knew the play was going to that left side. All you had to do was stop it. But rarely could you stop it. In a critical part of the game, they were going right over Gene and Art and they’d always get the first down. We had some knock-out, drag-outs with Gene and Art over the years. They were great players.”
In 1978 and 1979, the Raiders won nine games both years but failed to reach the playoffs.
Plunkett 13/22 164 yrds 2 TDs 0Ints
van Eeghen 19 rush 115 yards
Branch 2 rec 40 yards 1 TD
Chandler 6 rec 70 yards
Chester 2 rec 50 yards 1 TD
— Raiders History (@Oaklraiders1976) March 11, 2023
However, in 1980, the team rode the right arm of quarterback Jim Plunkett to an 11-5 record.
Victories over Houston, Cleveland, and San Diego followed before Oakland met the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV.
With the organization’s third trip to the NFL’s title game, Upshaw became the first player in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl in three different decades.
As the only player to play in Super Bowls in three different decades with the same team, it can be safely said that the @Raiders history would be quite different without Gene Upshaw.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) August 20, 2022
He is also the only player in history to play with the same team in three different Super Bowls in three different decades.
As usual, the Oakland line dominated its competition and easily dispatched the Eagles for a 27-10 win.
The 1981 season represented Upshaw’s 15th in the NFL, and it was beginning to show.
For the first time in his career, he didn’t start every game, and after Oakland finished the season 7-9, Upshaw retired.
"NFL Superbowl XV" by Merv Corning #Raiders Jim Plunkett, Gene Upshaw & Art shell
Eagles Charlie Johnson and Randy Logan pic.twitter.com/KYTWNcPGTN
— AFL Godfather #🟦🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) October 24, 2021
During his career, Upshaw won two Super Bowls and one AFL Championship. He became an All-Pro eight times and All-AFL three times, went to six Pro Bowls and was an AFL All-Star once.
In the years since he retired, Upshaw was selected for the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team and the league’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Then, in 1987, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“(The Raiders) have been classed as renegades, misfits, mavericks, but we all stick together out there, and we always will,” Upshaw said in his Hall of Fame speech. “We had some unique individuals.”
Upshaw Leads the NFLPA
As a rookie in 1967, Upshaw was introduced to player politics and the complicated world of labor relations and unions.
“Dave Grayson, our player rep, said, ‘Look, rookie, here’s a card. Sign it and pay your dues.’ I didn’t know if I had a choice or not. Then after I did join, I wanted to know what was going on,” said Upshaw in 1982.
From then on, Upshaw became heavily involved in the players’ union as well as the local Oakland community.
Eventually, Upshaw became so vocal about players’ rights that his teammates selected him as the Raiders’ player rep for the union.
Upshaw was also the team’s captain for several seasons and could talk to any player about any subject.
“Always up, always happy. If you were down and you talked to him, you soon were up,” said former Raiders coach John Madden who also noted that “being a leader came naturally to Gene.”
By the late 1970s, Upshaw was a member of the NFLPA executive committee before becoming its president in 1980.
During the 1980s, Upshaw led the players in two strikes (1982 and 1987) and worked to help players receive better compensation.
November 16, 1982
Negotiators for the NFL and NFLPA reached agreement on a settlement of the 57-day-old strike.
NFLPA Executive Director Ed Garvey, President Gene Upshaw with team reps (L-R) Dave Stalls (Bucs), Burgess Owens (Raiders), James Lofton (Packers) & Stan White (Lions). pic.twitter.com/McDumZZ8Lc
— AFL Godfather #🟦🏴☠️👓🏈 (@NFLMAVERICK) November 16, 2022
Just as he did on the field, Upshaw could stand up to anyone and found himself doing so in the boardroom on numerous occasions.
In a 1987 meeting with NFL owners, then Dallas Cowboys owner Tex Schramm became testy with Upshaw.
“You’re the cattle, we’re the ranchers,” yelled Schramm. “And we can always get new cattle!”
The comment angered Upshaw who had one central belief in his role.
“A worker has a right to bargain,” explained Upshaw. “Think about the movie The Elephant Man. Here was this guy with a bag over his head, and he screamed and said, ‘I am a human being.’ We wear helmets and shoulder pads, and we’re saying, ‘We’re human beings.’ We want to be heard. Without the players, there is nothing. We say to management, you can’t own me, but together, we can function.”
Respect and Derision
For well over two decades Upshaw fought hard for the players on the field.
At one point during negotiations with team owners in 1991, he came up with a unique plan to decertify the NFLPA.
That meant the owners could no longer claim an antitrust exemption. This led them to settle with the union.
Part of the settlement included free agency in exchange for a salary cap and a 60% percent share of league revenues for the players.
We honor the life of Gene Upshaw, who passed away on this day 13 years ago. Without Gene, the game of football would not be what it is today. From free agency to player rights & revenue, our union and its members are forever indebted to "The Governor." #GU63 pic.twitter.com/ButviiFEnP
— NFLPA (@NFLPA) August 20, 2021
As great as those victories were for the players, retired players had a major problem with Upshaw.
Central to their issues was the fact that retired players were barely getting by on their NFL pensions, and according to them, Upshaw wasn’t doing much about it.
Former Buffalo Bills offensive lineman Joe DeLamielleure was one of Upshaw’s more vocal critics.
“I won’t stop until that bastard’s gone or in jail,” said DeLamielleure. “He’s a disgrace to every player, past and current.”
Upshaw responded to DeLamielleure with fury.
“The bottom line is I don’t work for [retired players],” Upshaw responded. “They don’t hire me and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote. That’s who pays my salary. [The retirees] say they don’t have anybody in the [bargaining] room. Well, they don’t and they never will. I’m the only one in that room. They don’t even have a vote.”
Upshaw was technically correct about the NFLPA’s stance on retired players.
However, DeLamielleure and his cohorts saw Upshaw’s $6.7 million salary and sought help from the federal government.
The retired players believed that Upshaw’s pay clearly showed that the NFLPA had more than enough money to give vets like them a bigger piece of the pie.
“The only guy who’s been in power longer than Gene Upshaw is Fidel Castro, and he thinks he’s done a great job too,” DeLamielleure said. “We need the government to step in and clean up this act. Nobody thought a guy who’d played with us would throw us under a bus.”
That led Upshaw to respond in kind.
“A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I’m going to invite him to dinner?” he growled. “No. I’m going to break his goddamn neck!”
Death from Cancer
Upshaw continued to fight for the rights of NFL players into the 2000s.
In 2006, he was overwhelmingly backed by the players, 1,795 votes to five, to extend the collective bargaining agreement.
“That’s my approval rating,” said Upshaw.
Despite working to increase retired players’ pensions, the old guard continued to howl.
“They’re throwing a handful of pebbles in their ocean of bullsh— and expecting us to applaud as the ripples go away,” former Cleveland Brown Bernie Parrish said. “We’re not going away. They’re going to write a check.”
While he was still active in his role with the NFLPA, Upshaw suddenly fell ill in August of 2008.
Today, we remember #TheGovernor.
— NFLPA (@NFLPA) August 20, 2020
His wife, Terri, saw that her husband was having trouble breathing and checked him into a hospital.
The news couldn’t have been worse.
After examining him, doctors found that Upshaw had a severe form of pancreatic cancer. He didn’t have long to live.
For the next few days, he visited with his family and endured the poking and prodding of doctors and nurses.
Then, on August 20, 2008, Upshaw died, just days after checking into the hospital.
He was 63 years old.
“Two days [from diagnosis to death] is a record,” said Miki Yaras-Davis, the NFLPA’s director of benefits, “but that man was always setting records.”
Upshaw’s sudden death meant that the union officials had to scramble for a replacement.
There was also an outpouring of grief from friends and family.
“He was and will remain a part of the fabric of our lives and of the Raider mystique and legacy,” Raiders owner Al Davis said. “We loved him and he loved us. We will miss him.”
Surprisingly, even DeLamielleure responded to Upshaw’s passing.
“The reality of life for all the guys who played in the NFL, including Gene, is that we have a short life span. It’s just the way it is,” DeLamielleure said. “I have sympathy for his family. I have sympathy for his wife and children.”
Upshaw is survived by Terri and his three sons.