Honoring a football legend
July 14, 2010
TRUCKEE – To this day, Ronnie Lott can picture the silver- and black-clad Gene Upshaw – a bruising veteran of a lineman and future Hall of Fame Raider – pulling around the corner on a blocking assignment. To the young 49ers’ defensive back, this was never a good thing.
“There are only a couple of guys I know that, if you’re a defensive back, you can just feel that kind of aura when they’re coming at you,” Lott said Monday from The Golf Club at Gray’s Crossing, where he was asked to recount a memory of his late friend.
“The funny thing about that is, when you see guys that bring that certain type of nastiness, you can’t forget that. You never forget that. It’s ingrained in my head. I know there are a number of guards that stand out as guys you don’t want to see coming around the corner, and when you saw (number) 63 coming around, you definitely didn’t want to see him.”
Lott, who played with a similar brand of “nastiness” in his own Hall of Fame football career, said he has nothing but respect for Upshaw, who died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 21, 2008, at Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee. He was 63. On Monday, Lott and a number of other former NFL players honored the life of Upshaw while helping raise funds for pancreatic research in the Second Annual Gene Upshaw Memorial Golf Classic.
The charity event benefits Tahoe Forest Health System and provides a new source of funding for pancreatic cancer research through the Tahoe Institute for Rural Health Research. Preliminary proceeds are estimated to exceed $100,000, event officials said.
“Gene didn’t really like the spotlight and a lot of attention, but I think he’s probably looking down on this going, ‘You guys did a pretty good job here, I’m proud of you,'” said Terri Upshaw, Gene’s widow. “Just seeing the community come together for such a nice cause, and raising awareness for pancreatic cancer and hopefully working toward a cure so others don’t have to suffer, is just great.”
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Terri Upshaw said her husband, a founding member of The Golf Club at Gray’s Crossing, enjoyed spending time at his Truckee home in the summer months. He just always wished he had more time to golf before hitting the road, as he served as the executive director of the NFL Players Association from 1983 to 2008 following a 16-year career with the Raiders.
“He would just talk about wanting to be in Tahoe,” Terri Upshaw said. “The minute we landed in Reno at the airport it was like he completely shut down everything else and was just so ready to get up here. And then as summer would wind down and the (NFL) season would begin, he knew he’d have to be out on the road again, and he just dreaded it. He would say, ‘I don’t want to leave this place.’
“So he’s still here.”
While Lott recalled a memory of Upshaw on the gridiron, former NFL receiver and career-long Raider Tim Brown said he best remembers Upshaw as a persuasive director of the Players Association.
“I’ll remember his strong leadership,” said Brown, who in 2002 surpassed Upshaw to become the Raiders’ all-time leader in games played. “This was a guy that stood up to the criticism, and even to his dying days he wasn’t afraid to face any criticism that came to him. I guess when you’re 6-6 and 300 pounds you’re not going to be afraid of too many people. But I loved that about him.
“He’d sit in a meeting with the owners or commissioner, and he’d bark at these guys just like he barked at us. I found that incredible. And they all gave him great respect, because they knew he was just trying to do the right thing.”
At the players’ reception Sunday evening, Terri Upshaw presented a check from last year’s inaugural event in the amount of $58,000 to Dr. Thomas Semrad, who’s with the Division of Hematology and Oncology at the University of California at Davis Medical Center. Semrad was selected as the first to receive funding to further research for pancreatic cancer.
Notable athletes in the Gene Upshaw Memorial Golf Classic:
Ronnie Lott; Marcus Allen; Tim Brown; Fred Biletnikoff; Eric Bjornson; Ernie Conwell; Raymond Chester; Tom Flores; Nolan Harrison; Mike Kenn; Rod Martin; Sam McCullum; Chester McGlockton.