Upshaw has on-field legacy, too

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Before he wore a suit every day and became a champion for NFL players' rights, Gene Upshaw played the game himself.

Upshaw liked to remind folks about that once in a while in recent years, when former players took shots at him during the firestorm over former players' rights.

How could we forget?

The sight of No. 63 in the silver and black uniform, standing next to No. 78, Art Shell ...

Gene Upshaw was Oakland Raiders football of the 1970s. He and Shell were the face of the tough, gritty Raiders and major figures in the team's rivalry with the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos in the old, wild AFC West days.

Indeed, long before he was the executive director of the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw was a Raider. Eugene Thurman Upshaw Jr., who died suddenly following a bout with pancreatic cancer this morning at the age of 63, was a Pro Football Hall of Famer.

"I hope people remember that," said former Minnesota Vikings defensive end Carl Eller, himself a Hall of Famer. "Gene was the pilot of that great offense."

The Raiders selected Upshaw out of Texas A&I with the 17th overall pick of the first AFL-NFL draft in 1967. The Robstown, Texas, native became an immediate fixture on Oakland's offensive line until he retired in 1981. Six years later, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Upshaw was an 11-time All-Pro selection. He won two Super Bowls while with Oakland -- Super Bowl XI against Minnesota and Super Bowl XV against Philadelphia.

Because he was an end, Eller was never responsible for lining up directly opposite Upshaw, but they ended up in the same scrum plenty of times. Eller recalls prior to the Vikings' Super Bowl game against the Raiders that Upshaw was a constant mention in Minnesota's defensive game-plan meetings. Beating Upshaw was the key to beating Oakland and winning the elusive Super Bowl ring in Minnesota. The Purple People Eaters couldn't beat Upshaw, and the Vikings couldn't beat the Raiders.

"Gene was a nightmare for us," Eller said. "I remember Jim [Marshall] complaining about him all the time. He was a tough, rugged guy to play against."

The Vikings were lucky. They didn't have to play against Upshaw very often. It was the Raiders' AFC opponents who had to tussle with Upshaw on a regular basis.

In the 1970s, one of the Raiders' greatest rivalries was against the Broncos and their Orange Crush Defense. They were a menacing bunch. They crushed everyone. But Upshaw was a different story. The architect of the Orange Crush defense, Joe Collier, to this day says Upshaw was one of his team's toughest opponents. Collier calls Upshaw one of the greatest guards ever to play in the NFL.

"Gene was a load to play against," Collier said." The Raiders had a great running team back then and Gene and Art Shell were the reason for it. You knew the play was going to that left side. All you had to do was stop it. But rarely could you stop it. In a critical part of the game, they were going right over Gene and Art and they'd always get the first down. We had some knock-out, drag-outs with Gene over the years. He was a great player."

Upshaw and Shell will always be connected. Their coach, John Madden, called them Highway 63 and Highway 78. Shell's representative, Danny More, said that Shell and his family are devastated by the news. More said Shell last talked to Upshaw a couple of weeks ago and the two friends were making plans to get together.

"This is a friendship that has lasted more than 40 years," More said. "Art is crushed. When you think of Gene, you think of Art and vice versa."

More said the true measure of Upshaw's ability as a player was the lasting impression he made on his great opponents. More said legendary former Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram told him that he used to draft defensive linemen simply based on if he thought they could hang with Upshaw and Shell. More also said former Pittsburgh great "Mean" Joe Greene told him that the Steelers knew their greatest challenge getting to the Super Bowl was to get through Upshaw and Shell.

"Joe said no matter how good the Steelers were their great worry was that Oakland offensive line," More said. "Gene was the best. It's simple as that."