Eugene Thurman Upshaw, Jr., football player and union leader, was born on August 15, 1945, in Robstown, Texas. He was the oldest child of Eugene Upshaw, Sr., an employee of an oil company, and Cora (Riley) Upshaw, a domestic laborer. Gene and his brothers worked in area cotton fields during their childhoods in an effort to raise extra money to assist the family. Upshaw attended Robstown High School, distinguishing himself academically and athletically. Specifically, Upshaw served as the star pitcher on the school’s baseball team.
Upon graduation from high school, Upshaw, though tempted to start a baseball career, followed his father’s wishes that he obtain a college education. Upshaw attended Texas College of Arts and Industries (later Texas A&I University and currently Texas A&M University-Kingsville) and played tackle and center on the college football team under Coach Gil Steinke. Even though Upshaw had only one year of football experience in high school, Coach Steinke, known as one of the first football coaches in Texas to integrate minority players into his teams, saw promise in the young player. During his four years in Kingsville, Upshaw grew to be 6’5” tall and weighed 255 pounds. His size and speed helped him earn National Association of Intercollegiate Athletes (NAIA) All-American status, and he played a part in establishing Texas A&I as a national powerhouse among small universities, with the school winning six NAIA national championships in the decade following Upshaw’s graduation. While in college, he also joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. On December 30, 1967, he married Jimmye Hill. They had one son, Eugene III, but later divorced. Upshaw graduated from Texas A&I with a B.S. degree in 1968.
In 1967 the Oakland Raiders drafted Upshaw in the first round (seventeenth over-all) in the first combined American Football League/National Football League draft. Because of his size and agility, the Raiders’ coaching staff felt Upshaw would make an excellent offensive guard. Their intuition proved correct as Upshaw, beginning with the first game of his rookie season, started at left guard for the team in more than 200 straight regular season games. During the 1981 season he missed one game because of injury, before returning to finish the season. The following year he missed the entire season because of injuries, and subsequently chose to retire.
Upshaw accumulated numerous accolades as a player. He competed in ten conference championship games and seven Pro Bowls. Upshaw was named AFC Lineman of the Year in 1973, 1974, and 1977, as well as being named NFL Lineman of the Year in 1977. For eight years he served as the Raiders’ offensive captain, and he is the only player to have played in three different Super Bowls (II, XI, and XV) in three different decades; the Raiders won Super Bowls XI and XV. Finally, Upshaw was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1970s, the NFL seventy-fifth anniversary All-Time Team (1994), and in 1987 received induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame—he was the first honoree to have played exclusively as a guard.
Off the field, though, Upshaw made his longest lasting mark on the NFL through his tireless efforts for players’ rights. From 1970 through 1976 Upshaw served as union representative for the Oakland Raiders. Then in 1980 he became the president of the NFL Players Association. In 1983 he became executive director, a position he held until his death. This role made him the first African American to head a major players union. The union, itself, was in financial trouble when Upshaw took over. Through his work, he turned the union into a major force in American sports labor, earning himself a position on the AFL-CIO executive council in 1985. He played a role in the Players Association strike in 1987. His greatest achievement came with the 1993 agreement between the union and the NFL that brought limited free agency to football and dramatically increased players’ salaries.
Upshaw married Teresa “Terri” Buich in 1986. They had two sons, Justin and Daniel. In addition to leading the Players Association, in 1994 he helped establish Players Inc., an organization designed to market football players off the field through promotional events, broadcast specials, licensed retail products, corporate sponsorships, and other projects. During his life, Upshaw received a number of honors, including the Byron “Whizzer” White Humanitarian Award (1980) and the A. Phillip Randolph Award (1982) as an outstanding Black leader. Upshaw made his home in Great Falls, Virginia, near the Washington, D.C., area. He was a Democrat and a Baptist.
While on vacation at his home in Lake Tahoe in 2008, Upshaw began to feel ill. After going to the doctor, he learned he had pancreatic cancer. Days later at Forest Hospital in Lake Tahoe, on August 20, 2008, Gene Upshaw passed away at the age of sixty-three.