I first met Gene Upshaw in the fall of 1966, when he was a senior at Texas A&I-Kingsville. He played tackle, center and end at a time when A&I was part of the NAIA. Small-school guys weren't as easily noticed back then. Upshaw beat the odds and became the 17th overall selection in the NFL's first common draft in 1967, following the NFL-AFL merger.
Oakland Raiders owner al Davis needed a tall guard to block the big defensive linemen that had come into the league -- players such as Buck Buchanan of the Chiefs and Ernie Ladd of the Chargers. Big defensive tackles were all the rage and Upshaw was the perfect antidote to block them because of his height and bulk. He won the starting left guard job in training camp as a rookie and never looked back, going on to start 207 consecutive games at one of the most demanding positions in the game.
Upshaw was a special friend to me even though we were on opposite sides of the field most of the time. He always had time for people. A few years ago, while attending Lamar Hunt's funeral in Dallas, Gene went out of his way to talk to both my wife and son and whisper a few words of encouragement at a trying time. That was Gene; he did many things for many people in their times of need -- and he never talked about it publicly.
The best way to describe Gene was as an intelligent, intense, caring, highly competitive individual with outstanding leadership qualities. He exhibited those qualities through his final days.
Not only did the NFLPA and the entire NFL family lose a special friend, so did many people whose lives he touched on a regular basis.