Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Matt Birk admits now it wasn't the best use of his Harvard education.
In the spring of 2006 -- at the height of negotiations of the NFL's most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement -- Birk publicly called out Gene Upshaw, the NFL Players Association's executive director. Birk, who graduated from Harvard in 1998 with a degree in economics, said Upshaw was not giving players all the facts and concluded by saying: "Gene Upshaw is a piece of [expletive]."
The story made national headlines and was heralded as a sign of a splintered union. Birk has a bit of an anti-authority streak in him, but isn't exactly considered a maverick. Here was a well-known player (six Pro Bowls) and a good citizen (theMinnesota Vikings' six-time Man of the Year) breaking rank at a crucial point in negotiations.
What few people know is that the next day, Birk called Upshaw and left a message apologizing for taking such a crude shot. Then, during a visit to the Vikings' practice facility last summer, Upshaw approached Birk to address his concerns.
Birk remains a critic of the players association, but speaking quietly about Upshaw's sudden death, Birk said Thursday the two had arrived at a personal -- if not professional -- common ground.
"He kind of laughed the whole thing off," Birk said. "It probably speaks to the kind of guy he was. We were able to talk seriously about some of the issues. What it came down to was that we agreed to disagree on the issues. But it wasn't like he just dismissed what I had to say, or vice versa. There was some respect there."
As a union boss, Birk said, Upshaw had to know he would be a regular target of criticism.
"I think Gene understood that and that's probably what made him so successful," Birk said. "He had his convictions and believed in what he believed in, and wasn't affected by other people's opinions."
Birk joined forces last year with Gridiron Greats and is passionate about improving benefits for retired players. That stance again put him at odds with the players association. Birk, however, said those issues shouldn't cloud Upshaw's tenure.
"You look at the life he led and all the things he accomplished, and it's pretty amazing," Birk said. "He certainly leaves a legacy and made an impact in a lot of ways on the NFL."