Vikings safety Darren Sharper, the team's NFLPA players rep, was the first person to inform head coach Brad Childress of the death of the union's executive director, Gene Upshaw, this morning, a death that will change of the landscape of the Players Association, Sharper said. Upshaw died of pancreatic cancer after being diagnosed on Sunday.
"He definitely left a legacy. Out of all the union leaders, he has to be the tops because of the time served and what he did. So many people benefitted from what Gene Upshaw did," Sharper said.
Upshaw led the union from 1973 into free agency in the 1990s and through numerous negotiations for collective bargaining agreements and extensions, securing more money for the players and keeping the NFL rolling without a work stoppage for the last two decades. As an officer of the NFLPA, he took part in all negotiations leading up to the 1977, 1982 and 1993 CBA between the NFLPA and the NFL, and extensions of the CBA in 1996, 1998, 2002, and most recently, 2006.
"I always thought Gene was great at getting here and pressing the troops and being hands-on. He was an administrator and he was also a former player," Childress said. "He understands things. … You knew you were talking to a football guy when you were talking to him."
Upshaw was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders before his entrance into the NFLPA. He had well-publicized disagreements with Vikings center Matt Birk, a former union rep for the team, but Birk said he talked to Upshaw last year, and the executive told him that they both wanted the same thing.
The union issued a statement Thursday morning acknowledging Upshaw's sudden death.
"We are deeply saddened and shocked by the sudden and unexpected death of our leader, Gene Upshaw. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Terri, and their three sons – Eugene, Justin and Daniel," the statement said. "Gene learned he was sick just this past Sunday and he died with his family at his side. We ask that the media respect our need to begin the process of dealing with this unexpected tragedy and to begin the grieving process."
Sharper said Troy Vincent, the union's president, and Trace Armstrong would be candidates to eventually replace Upshaw, but in an emergency meeting on Thursday the union placed its general counsel, Richard Berthelson, as the interim director.
The current CBA is set to expire after the 2010 season, as owners opted out of the agreement this spring, and NFL Network's Adam Shefter speculated that former Vikings Robert Smith and Steve Jordan could be among the candidates to consider.
Former NFL tight end and coach Mike Ditka had been a public detractor of Upshaw's stance against supporting former players who were suffering debilitating injuries or illnesses that could be football-related. Ditka even attended a press conference this winter at Birk's Matty B's restaurant in Minneapolis to help raise funds for ex-players suffering from various ailments.
"I think he was a good guy. Here's the problem: You don't have to agree the guy on everything. I don't agree with my wife on everything. My whole contention was that the disability program was a fraud program. It never got personal for me, I'm too old for that stuff," Ditka said Thursday morning on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning show.
Ditka was asked about Upshaw's reputation the last few years while some NFL alumni took shots at him for not being more supportive of their plight.
"That's exactly what life is – what have you done for me lately. They remember the latest things. If you make one mistake at the end, that's what they're going to remember, not that they should," Ditka said on the radio, later adding, "I'm not blaming the players association. I think the league is tremendously at fault for not taking care of these people."
But Ditka also said he had respect for Upshaw as a player – "he's justifiably in the Hall of Fame," he said – and understand the tough job that comes with being a leader.
"My dad was a union man. I understand how tough it was and I know what has to be done," he said. "You've got to become a hard-ass sometimes and maybe that's what he became, I don't know."
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