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Balls and Strikes

When I first met Gene Upshaw, he was the president of the National Football League Players Association. It was in early 1982 and there was a players strike looming. I went to Fort Lauderdale to interview Upshaw for Inside Sports magazine. We started in my hotel room at three in the morning. After the interview, during which we’d been drinking, I asked him if I could look at the Super Bowl ring he was wearing. It was like holding a brick in my hand. It was so beautiful, and I was so buzzed, that I had a brief fantasy of running out of the room with the ring and getting on a plane for wherever just so I could keep it. Then I looked over at one of the best and one of the meanest offensive linemen to ever play football and…I gave it back to him.


I was invited to speak at the first and only NFL players convention in 1982 in Albuquerque that was held in preparation for the players strike. There was a banquet the night before it started for all those who would be speaking. We were told that we would be “introduced” and get to know each other and the players. It turned out to be a roast. Each “introduction” took several minutes and each of us got ripped. It was hilarious. Upshaw introduced me, his basic riff being: “Where does a steelworker get off thinking he has a place here among real athletes?”


Gene Upshaw was often a surly guy. He made a lot of enemies. But I choose to remember him as a great player and a really funny guy who, despite the trash talk, made me feel welcome in a world where I really didn’t belong.


Gene Upshaw died of cancer yesterday. Rest in peace.



Email / August 21, 2008

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