Gene Upshaw, Hall of Fame left guard during the glory years of the Oakland Raiders, died late yesterday at the age of 63, just days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Growing up in Northern California, I was a Raiders fan in the era of John Madden, Kenny Stabler, Art Shell, and Gene Upshaw (among others). That was long before the Raiders had moved to Los Angeles, when the Raiders were very much blue collar, but hadn't yet picked up the gang-banger fans they acquired during their years in L.A. In those years the Raiders actually were the embodiment of the "Commitment to Excellence" for which they are generally mocked today, while the 49ers across the bay were an awful joke. Eventually the 49ers drafted Joe Montana and began their rise to glory, while the Raiders moved to Los Angeles, so my allegiance shifted to the Niners. But I will always remember the true grit of those Raiders, the physically imposing Upshaw and Shell leading the way for guys like Pete Banaszak and Mark Van Eeghen. Ken Stabler hobbling around on bad knees with seconds left in the game looking for Cliff Branch or Fred Biletnikoff.
Of course Upshaw went on to lead the NFL Players' Association for twenty-five years after he finished playing, and that's how he'll be remembered by many fans. But that's not how he'll be remembered by Raiders fans. For those of us who watched those great Raiders teams, Gene Upshaw will always be that guy battling in the trenches and covered in mud who defined what it means to be a "great" offensive lineman.
Here's a link to Upshaw's player profile at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and another to an L.A. Times article on his life.