Old, new Bengals salute Upshaw

Updated: 7:55 p.m.

Gene Upshaw and controversy went together like, well, Gene Upshaw and Art Shell on the Raiders Glory Days offensive line.

But one thing that the current Bengals player rep and the one from the 1987 strike that may have been Upshaw's defining moment both believe is that the modern player unknowingly owes him much.

"I don't think the players of today realize how much he's done," T.J. Houshmandzadeh said Thursday, alluding to Upshaw's role in bringing free agency to the NFL.

"With how players are being paid today," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, "that's Gene's lasting legacy to the players he used to represent. I don't think the players today know how much was accomplished in the strikes of the '80s."

Houshmandzadeh, Esiason and the rest of the NFL reflected Thursday on Upshaw after the long-time chief of the NFL Players Association unexpectedly died of pancreatic cancer.

"They might know who he is and what he does," Houshmandzadeh said of today's player. "But he played a big part in growing the league. He stood his ground and he stood his ground for the players whether it was popular by public opinion or not."

Houshmandzadeh called Upshaw "straightforward," and Jim Breech, the Bengals all-time leading scorer, lived it on the field during Upshaw's last days as a Hall of Fame offensive lineman in the late '70s with the Raiders.

"I was going on the field to kick the extra point in a tie game at the end of a preseason game," Breech recalled. "He came up to me and said, 'We don't do overtimes in the preseason. If you miss this, I'll kill you.' I made it."

Breech remembers a larger-than-life locker room of Upshaw, fellow Hall of Famer Shell, swashbuckling quarterback Kenny Stabler, "The Tooz," and Ted "The Stork" Hendricks.

"They were impressive," Breech said. "I remember Gene saying even then that after he played he either wanted to be head of the union or governor of California."

The union it was for 25 years through a couple of strikes, the winning of free agency, and labor peace for more than 20 years.

Esiason had more than his share of disagreements with Upshaw after being one of the more vociferous supporters of the '87 strike that Upshaw fought with resolve.

"I drank the Kool-Aid. I bought it lock, stock and barrel," Esiason said of the union. "When I started asking hard questions and asking for documentation, I became disenchanted with things and I felt we needed a change of leadership."

The height of the clash came in the early '90s when the NFLPA filed a suit with Esiason recalling that he was named the chief defendant. Unhappy with how Upshaw and the NFLPA were controlling licensing and merchandising issues, Esiason and a group of superstars formed "The Quarterback Club."

But Esiason says Upshaw was always courteous in public and while he says they had some contentious closed-door moments, he can see Upshaw's impact on his old team.

"Look what Chad Johnson makes, Carson Palmer, Willie Anderson and what Cleveland gave (Eric) Steinbach," Esiason said. "It's hard to argue what (Upshaw) accomplished."

Esiason took offense last year when he says Upshaw said he didn't work for the retired players in the middle of a wave of union criticism about lack of benefits for needy players "and those are the guys that were on the line for him 20 years ago."

But Esiason says, "Gene had good heart. I always felt that."

Houshmandzadeh, a member of the group that has advised NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on player conduct, said he was "shocked" to not only hear that Upshaw had died but that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

"I think Gene kept his personal stuff private," Houshmandzadeh said. "Any time someone dies, it's a sad situation. He didn't just do a lot for the union, he did a lot for the game. He's one of the best offensive linemen to play football."

So private that Esiason said when he began making calls Thursday during his morning show on WFAN to confirm Upshaw's death, people who knew him well were stunned to hear the news.

Houshmandzadeh doesn't believe the CBA negotiations are going to suffer. He points to acting director Richard Berthelsen's years as NFLPA counsel that basically mirror Upshaw's tenure.

"I'm sure there is a plan in place," he said. "The great thing about the CBA is you know going in there is three years of football - '08, '09, '10. You know that for a fact. .... There's a lot of time and more than enough people that are qualified.

"It took the owners what? Six months (to hire Goodell). If you can't find somebody qualified in three years, then something is wrong."

Houshmandzadeh didn't want to get into the politics of succession, but he did think that the guy that introduced him to the NFLPA, Troy Vincent, is a name that could get in the mix.

But Esiason says it will never be like the days in the '80s. Solomon Wilcots, a Bengals rookie in '87, says Upshaw showed the ultimate in leadership.

"Even at times when the union lacked solidarity and there were a number of players crossing the picket lines," Wilcots said, "he found a way to hold the union together. To help the players even when the players wouldn't help themselves."

Wilcots remembers Upshaw standing up and saying, "This strike is for free agency," and he was thinking, "No, it's about benefits."

"But he was right," Wilcots said. "I'm thinking that there's Anthony Munoz, an 11-time Pro Bowler, and he has to hold put to get $1 million? I think free agency has made the game more competitive."

Esiason gave Upshaw one of those compliments that matter. From a critic and candid source.

"I think you have to say that," Esiason said. "He left the NFL a better place."

Head coach Marvin Lewis statement: "In his position representing the players, I felt like Gene was always very frank and fair when he came in and visited the club. He wouldn't come here to visit without wanting to sit down and talk for 15 minutes to see how our players were doing and what else was going on. How were they doing? How was I doing? A time didn't go by when he didn't do that. And I appreciated that. It's a big loss for the NFL community.''

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