Bitter rival mourns Upshaw's passing

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Joe DeLamielleure received a text message before daybreak this morning. The note jarred him, confused him. He thought it was a bad joke.

His longtime nemesis, Gene Upshaw, had died of pancreatic cancer. Upshaw was 63.

"It just doesn't seem possible," DeLamielleure told ESPN.com. "Gene always took care of himself. He was the guy who looked like he could still play. He was always in the news and he looked like a young guy. He was powerful."

DeLamielleure just saw Upshaw at the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions in Canton, Ohio. Some of the members whispered about how much weight Upshaw had lost, but nobody knew he was gravely ill.

"Gene was one of those guys who was bigger than life," DeLamielleure said. "Certain people come into this world ... He was captain of the Raiders, one of the greatest players to play."

DeLamielleure and Upshaw engaged in furious exchanges over how Upshaw, as the longtime executive director of the NFL Players Association, allegedly catered to active players and shunned so many retirees desperate for financial and medical help.

Their vitriol made headlines in recent years, but DeLamielleure this morning was contemplative about Upshaw's passing.

"All the things I disagreed with, that's not really important today," DeLamielleure said. "You mourn the loss. We lost a Hall of Fame brother, too.

"Everybody's reaction is the same. All the guys who were complaining about the situation of the older players, they're shocked, and our sympathy goes to Gene's family. It's one thing to disagree with somebody professionally. I just feel terribly for his family."

The feud between the rugged offensive linemen escalated in June 2007, when Upshaw made a ferocious threat DeLamielleure took seriously.

"A guy like DeLamielleure says the things he said about me, you think I'm going to invite him to dinner?" Upshaw told the Philadelphia Daily News. "No. I'm going to break his ... damn neck."

"He was a tough guy," said DeLamielleure, who blocked on O.J. Simpson's famed "Electric Company" line. "We had a lot of the same characteristics, I think. We butted horns. He believed in what he was doing, and I believed in what I was doing and there was no between.

"I never had anything against Gene personally. I don't hate anybody in life. Sometimes you hate the position they take, but ..."

Still, DeLamielleure couldn't help but find Upshaw's passing ironic.

DeLamielleure and other NFL alumni advocates such as Mike Ditka, Jerry Kramer and Sam Huff pleaded with Upshaw for years to address myriad concerns, some of which contribute to frequent early deaths among former football players.

"Here's the deal: Everybody's in shock, but football players die younger than everyone," DeLamielleure said. "That's been the complaint. How sad. It's a sad day. It really is. There's something to this. Guys are dying younger. It's really weird. It's a weird feeling.

"The guys who played in the National Football League during our era, we think of dying young all the time. That's why I think when Gene dies you think 'Holy crap. Nobody's immune.' Walter Payton, Reggie White ... All these players passing away from natural causes, I guess, but why so young?

"So many friends are dead. It's not normal."