The first time I met Gene Upshaw 25 years ago was soon after the 1982 players strike. The scars from that battle were still fresh. He said then that management and players will always highlight their differences but that finding common ground was the charge. He became executive director of the NFL players association the next year and in testy times sought common ground.
Another strike would loom five years later but then, in 1989, Paul Tagliabue became NFL commissioner. Upshaw found a man he trusted. Their relationship helped forge longstanding labor peace and prosperity for the league. Thus, as much as Upshaw was labeled a fighter, a line-in-the-sand leader, he sought common ground. He sought consensus. He would hold a match in one hand and a hose in the other. He could flip back and forth with effectiveness. His passion for his players was real. His passion to lead was real.
The last time many of us saw him was at the NFL Rookie Symposium two months ago in Carlsbad, Calif. Upshaw addressed the rookies in striking terms, telling them that the union cared more about them than the league did and that the union was their certain ally. It was a presentation that miffed a few NFL leaders. But privately afterward, Upshaw told me: "We will soon be in a labor battle with powerful, smart people who have their interest up front. What is wrong with our players doing the same? With me? You know, a lot of times what is said by both sides in public is not necessarily the way it goes in private. We can work through this."
A match in one hand. A hose in the other.
A Hall of Fame leader. A Hall of Fame friend. A man who leaves us with a vast volume of work that was not in vain.