When the Oakland Raiders recite all those slogans about "commitment to excellence" and "pride and poise," they're talking about Gene Upshaw.
Those words possessed serious clout during Upshaw's brilliant 15-year career. They meant something back then because Upshaw and his teammates backed those words with performance and impact.
For all boomers out there, close your eyes and remember the Raiders of the 1970s and '80s: There's Kenny Stabler dealing, Jim Plunkett throwing deep, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum blowing up receivers downfield and Fred Biletnikoff darting over the middle and catching everything near him.
But to me, the memory with the most resonance is Upshaw, No. 63, his arms padded Popeye-style and his legs driving. And there he goes, roadgrading the Minnesota Vikings during Super Bowl XI in the Rose Bowl, or escorting Clarence Davis for first down after first down.
And, as all those NFL Films depict, Upshaw raised high the game ball. His Raider teams won two Super Bowls and played in 10 conference championship games while he made seven Pro Bowl appearances.
Folks, that is a Hall-of-Fame body of work, and it's only a portion of what he gave to the Raiders and the NFL. It is why anyone with a pulse, even his critics, mourns his death of pancreatic cancer Wednesday at age 63.
I stressed his on-the-field career for a reason. He always was a player first. That he later became a difference-making leader of the NFL Players Association only burnished his legacy. His warrior style worked in the board room as well as at the goal line. His shocking death also underlined the NFL's most painful truth -- that many of its players die before their time.
For all his spectacular success, Upshaw was a player no different than the rank and file. He donated years of his life to the game he loved. In the end, after all those labor fights with the NFL suits, he died as a player -- too soon.
I never fully understood the critics' claim that Upshaw cared more for the current players than their predecessors. People like Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer complained that crippled alums were ignored and that Upshaw was a stooge for the owners.
For starters, Upshaw can't be blamed for the oversight of union leaders before him. He took over as NFLPA boss in 1983, one year after a players' strike and four years before a lockout. In those days, the owners lorded their power over the players. There was no free agency. The owners had the money and the players were replaceable parts.
This was Upshaw's starting point as a union leader. From there, he rallied the players and fought for the causes he could win. In 1993, labor peace was achieved with the milestone seven-year contract which featured free agency for the players and a salary cap for the owners. From that point, salaries have mushroomed and TV and marketing have skyrocketed.
Upshaw's role here can't be underemphasized. Owners trusted him and the players respected him. The pulling guard pulled no punches, but he also listened to the other side, the eternal ingredients of a good negotiator.
So it came as a surprise two years ago when Upshaw was targeted for having little sympathy over the plight of suffering former players. It didn't help when, after he was blistered by fellow Hall-of-Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, he responded, "I'd love to break his neck."
Again, Upshaw reacted like a player: If you hit me, I'm hitting back. But let's assess the issue. Yes, these mangled former players helped to make the NFL the giant it is today. Clearly, they're not getting enough health care, but some receive more from their pensions than they made as players. I'm sure Upshaw wished he could have poured some of today's NFL riches onto yesterday's players. I want to think he would have lent more of hand over the next few years.
There was so much more to do, like finding a suitable test for HGH, ongoing safety concerns regarding obesity and another collective bargaining agreement after this season. The league will miss Upshaw's strong and steady hand, and the players will miss a most valued advocate.
Today, the players still don't have guaranteed contracts, but all sides are winning. The league coffers are filled with $7.6 billion of revenue and rising. The players' cut? Sixty percent.
Which is why everyone in pads and helmets should be grieving over the death of Upshaw. Ultimately, he was one of them.
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www.modbee.com. Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2302.