EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series acquainting fans with the Raiders’ illustrious 60-year history as the team moves to Las Vegas for the 2020 season.
Gene Upshaw was one of the greatest offensive linemen to play for the Raiders, spending his entire 15-year career with the franchise and winning a pair of Super Bowls.
He had an even bigger impact on the National Football League after his playing days.
Upshaw served as the executive director of the NFL Players Association for a quarter century, ushering the union through a strike in 1987 and the establishment of a salary cap in exchange for free agency.
“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,” former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement at the time of Upshaw’s death in 2008.
Upshaw’s role in football history was already secure before his run with the NFLPA. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a player, the first player to line up exclusively at guard to do so, after making eight All-Pro teams and playing in Super Bowls in three decades. He was named to the all-1970s team and the league’s 100th anniversary team.
The first-round pick of the Raiders in 1967, Upshaw played left guard for two Super Bowl-winning teams. He helped form one of the most intimidating lines of the era, lining up between Hall of Famers Jim Otto at center and Art Shell at tackle.
Upshaw took particular pride in his contributions to the team’s vaunted run game.
“Running over those defensive backs is my biggest thrill in football. That’s why I just love the sweep,” he once said. “If it was up to me, we’d run it every play. I know football’s a team game and I know I have to sacrifice and all, but I still wish we’d just run sweeps all day.”
Once he had the job, he refused to relinquish it. Upshaw started 207 straight regular-season games before missing just one contest in 1981, his final season.
He was often recognized as a great leader even during his playing days. Upshaw served as offensive captain for eight seasons.
“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 in a statement upon Upshaw’s death.
Upshaw drew some criticism in his post-playing career role for not being aggressive enough at times in support of the players. But the establishment of free agency was a major boon for players, and compensation rose considerably.
A more complicated part of his legacy is the lack of financial security former players were able to achieve under his leadership and the strike that yielded little for the players.
Upshaw died in Lake Tahoe, California, just days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.