Sterling Sharpe's booming voice carried across the driving range at The Golf Club at Gray's Crossing as he wrapped his arm around the shoulder of junior Truckee football player Blake Crosby.
Crosby, in stitches laughing along with a half-dozen Truckee football teammates and their coach, had little choice but to accept the good-natured ribbing aimed at him and his fellow Wolverines. His teammates, after all, had just endured similar bantering from the NFL Hall of Famer, who really just wanted to learn more about the three-time defending state champs.
“They're pretty relaxed around us, and they heard about our three-peat, so they want to hear more about that and talk to us and joke around a bit,” said Truckee senior running back Tyler Curtis, referring to the numerous NFL greats who were tuning up before the start of the fourth annual Gene Upshaw Memorial Golf Classic on Monday.
Accompanied by their head coach, Bob Shaffer, the group of Truckee players volunteered to help out in the morning of the fundraising tournament. Another group of Truckee players replaced them for the afternoon shift.
“They're going to be talking about that all day at school probably,” Shaffer said of the players' humorous exchange with Sharpe, a Green Bay Packers receiver from 1988 to 1994. “The way he got on them about not having names on the backs of their jerseys … he rode ‘em pretty hard.”
But it was all in good fun.
Sharpe — whose life-of-the-party kidding around with the Truckee players attracted former Washington Redskins running back Brian Mitchell to the circle — was joined in the memorial golf tournament by more than 20 former NFL players and coaches. In addition to Sharpe, they included Marcus Allen, Gene Washington, Willie Gault, Raymond Chester, Tom Flores and Herm Edwards, among others.
Now in its fourth year, the tournament is put on by Tahoe Forest Health System in Truckee to gain awareness and support for the new state-of-the-art Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center, which celebrated its grand opening Tuesday. In its first three years, the event raised nearly $350,000 of net profit to benefit Tahoe Forest Health System and its programs.
Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame lineman for the Oakland Raiders who also served as director of the Players Association, died at Tahoe Forest Hospital of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 21, 2008, at the age of 63.
“It's been a long, emotional journey, and it started when Gene passed away with the quality care that he received for the short time while he was in Tahoe Forest Hospital,” said Terri Upshaw, Gene's widow. “I just felt that the community wrapped its hands around us as a family. And when the cancer center came into the picture, I felt like it would be a perfect match.
“This was Gene's place to go to get away and escape the pressures and stress of work, and we would spend good, quality time as a family. So we wanted to be able to leave his legacy with a community where we felt embraced.”
The participating players and coaches said they cherished the opportunity to honor an old friend while also contributing to a good cause.
“I always look forward to it, especially because of the cause,” said former Raiders teammate Marcus Allen, who has participated all four years of the tournament. “What you do for your fellow man is what really lasts. Those are the meaningful things. I always try to keep everything in perspective. Trophies are great, but they get old and they get rusty, so I think what you do for your fellow man is what really makes you feel good at the end of the day. So participating in this is certainly something special.”
Tom Flores, who twice led the Raiders to Super Bowl victories after replacing John Madden as head coach in 1979, has attended three of the four memorial tournaments, skipping last year's because of a shoulder surgery. “We old football players are tough, but not that tough,” he joked.
He, too, said he was honored to play in the tournament in memory of Upshaw, whom he best remembers as “a great leader” — he also recalls Upshaw helping to get the Raiders' locker room “on my side” after Madden's departure.
“Gene was a good friend. He was a great player and a great person, and he did a lot for football, so this is very befitting of him,” Flores said. “All the work that they've done and the money they've raised for local charities is just tremendous.”
Mitchell echoed the sentiment of Flores and Allen.
“As athletes we get invited to a lot of different things, and what's tough about showing up to a golf tournament? You're helping out a great cause and a great man who was always willing to help everybody else,” Mitchell said. “So everything about this golf tournament, helping with the cancer center and all that, is unbelievable. I was thrilled that I was asked to come. I've always supported Gene and believed in him, so to see this legacy that he would be proud of, I'm happy to be a part of it.”