I always knew he was listening. Every afternoon on my Sirius Radio show, I knew Gene Upshaw had the station on and was listening with a sharp ear to our NFL conversations with the guests and fans. He was never opposed to calling in and taking issue with me if he opposed my view of the direction the NFL should be headed in. Whether it was a rookie wage scale, which I support and he doesn't, or less guaranteed money in contracts, Gene Upshaw spent every moment supporting and protecting the players.
The last time I spoke with Gene in person was at this year's NFL draft. It was about two hours before the start of the first round and people were milling about Radio City Music Hall when I caught Gene and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sitting alone in a quiet section of the Hall just talking about the league. When I went over to say hello, Gene turned to Roger and said, "I have to call his radio show once in a while to set things straight." He said it with a smile on his face and we all had a laugh, but behind the laugh was a man who cared about the players and also understood that a cooperative working relationship with the league was the best way to get things done. Some players felt his relationship with Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell was too close for comfort, but I say he kept it professional at all times and the proof is in the rise of salaries and benefits the players have received while he was in charge.
There have been plenty of critics of Gene Upshaw, usually people who have never undertaken such a gigantic task as the one Upshaw did with the union. History will show that under his watch, the growth in player benefits has never been better. The union has lost the gatekeeper, a man who never left his post and wasn't concerned with popularity contests. Gene Upshaw was a Hall of Fame player who may have done more for football after his playing days than he ever did getting himself to Canton, Ohio.
Was he perfect? No. Was he nearing the end of a great run as the head of the union? Yes. But history will show that he was good for the game, the players and the fans -- and that's all he ever wanted to be, whether you liked his methodology or not. The man who replaces him will have his work cut for him, and it will not take long to realize what Gene Upshaw's talents were right up until his untimely death.