Hall of Famer Upshaw loses battle with pancreatic cancer

Updated: August 21, 2008, 10:22 PM ET

ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK — Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who during a quarter century as union head helped get NFL players free agency and the riches that came with it, has died. He was 63.

Upshaw died Wednesday night at his home near California’s Lake Tahoe of pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed only last Sunday, the NFL Players Association said Thursday. His wife, Terri, and sons Eugene Jr., Justin and Daniel were by his side.

Upshaw had not been feeling well for about a week; his wife noticed his breathing had become somewhat labored, sources told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen. She convinced her husband to go to the emergency room Sunday, and it was then that he received a cancer diagnosis.

Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director for the NFLPA, told Mortensen that after Upshaw’s wife had called him Saturday, it took the two a day to convince him to get to a hospital.

A Singular Career

Highlights of Gene Upshaw’s numerous contributions to pro football for four-plus decades:

• Executive director of NFLPA since June 1983

• Took part in all negotiations leading up to CBA in 1977, ’82 and ’93 (and extensions in ’96, ’98, ’02 and ’06)

• Raiders’ first pick in 1967 draft (17th overall; ’67 was first combined AFL-NFL draft)

• Played 15 seasons with Raiders (1967-81)

• 7-time Pro Bowl selection

• 5-time First Team All-Pro

• Won 2 Super Bowls

• Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987

• Started 207 straight regular-season games from 1967 to ’81

• Played 307 preseason, regular season, and postseason games

• Only player ever to start on championship teams in both the AFL and NFL

• NAIA All-America honors at Texas A&I

Though the news devastated Upshaw, he was wide awake on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but his health deteriorated the following day, Mayer said. Mayer said it was sometime after 10 p.m. ET Wednesday when he received a call from Upshaw’s family about his death. Mayer then notified NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Upshaw had had some back problems that led him to pull out of the Legends Reno-Tahoe Open golf tournament earlier this month, and at that time Mayer had encouraged him to seek a medical exam to determine the cause of the pain.

The executive committee of the NFLPA and Goodell were scheduled to have a conference call Thursday afternoon to discuss how they will honor Upshaw’s memory this season.

Upshaw’s family will hold a private service. There will be a more public memorial service sometime in September, most likely in the Washington, D.C., area, where the players’ association is headquartered.

“Few people in the history of the National Football League have played the game as well as Gene and then had another career in football with so much positive impact on the structure and competitiveness of the entire league as Gene,” former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.

Goodell offered similar praise.

“Gene Upshaw did everything with great dignity, pride and conviction,” Goodell said. “He was the rare individual who earned his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame both for his accomplishments on the field and for his leadership of the players off the field. He fought hard for the players and always kept his focus on what was best for the game. His leadership played a crucial role in taking the NFL and its players to new heights.”

News of Upshaw’s death first came through a Clear Channel Online report that appeared on several radio Web sites.

Upshaw died only two days after the union announced he would hold a briefing on labor negotiations before the Sept. 4 season opener between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. The NFLPA’s executive committee appointed longtime general counsel Richard Berthelsen as the union’s acting executive director Thursday afternoon.

Upshaw’s outstanding 15-season playing career from 1967 to ’81 was entirely with the Oakland Raiders. It included two Super Bowl wins and seven Pro Bowl appearances.

“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.”