As a guard for the Oakland Raiders from 1967-81, Gene Upshaw was famous for leading sweeps around left end.
“That’s my play,” Upshaw said then. “A wide receiver wants to catch a long touchdown pass. A defensive tackle wants to break through and sack the quarterback. I get my satisfaction from pulling to lead those sweeps.”
These days, Upshaw is a leading man of a different kind, serving as Executive Director of the National Football League Players Association. And it’s no longer defensive backs he’s looking to take head on, but a myriad of potential problems facing the NFL, most notably the use of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, as well as management and labor issues.
“Obviously, I’ve been very busy the past several months, dealing with issues,” Upshaw said Wednesday night at the seventh annual Manheim Touchdown Club Awards Banquet, held at the Lancaster Host Resort.
Upshaw served as the keynote speaker and presenter of the first Gene Upshaw Division II Lineman of the Year Award, which went to Pittsburg State’s Nathan Baker.
Also receiving awards Wednesday were Manheim Central running back/linebacker Jeremiha Hunter, who was named the MTC’s 2004 Lancaster-Lebanon League Player of the Year. Hempfield graduate and John Hopkins University star offensive lineman Matt Weeks, the 2004 NCAA Division II & III player of the year ; and Wilson graduate and University of Michigan QB Chad Henne, who was not in attendance but was the MTC’s NCAA Division I player of the year.
Hunter was honored as the L-L’s top player following a season in which he excelled on offense and defense and helped lead the Barons to a second straight PIAA Class AAA championship game appearance.
“ It’s definitely and honor since I’m an underclassman,” said Hunter, a junior who was voted the award by area media over seniors George Eager or Manheim Township and Chaz Logan of Wilson.
“It was a good season,” said Hunter, “and I thank the Manheim Touchdown club for their support. Coming to Manheim was the best thing in the world in preparing me for the next level.”
Upshaw will be in Washington D.C. today with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to testify before the House Commerce trade and consumer protection subcommittee on the proposed Drug Free Sports Act. The commissioners and Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL appeared before the panel on Wednesday.
“I think we’re on a different plane that other sports’ unions,” Upshaw said. “We started testing for drugs in 1982 and in 1987 we started the testing and suspension of players. In 1990, we started random testing.”
Upshaw said the NFL’s drug testing program came into effect in 1982 because that’s what the players wanted. There was suspicion around the league that some teams, most notably the Pittsburg Steelers, who won their fourth Super Bowl title in 1980, were using performance-enhancing drugs to get a physical edge.
“We’ve done (drug testing) because the players wanted it done,” Upshaw said. “The players wanted a level playing field.”
Today, the NFL randomly test seven player per team per week for drug use during the season, and as Upshaw said, those who cheat will get caught.
“You are not going to find one guy who will defend someone trying to cheat,” he said. “There’s no room for cheaters.”
In a league where the average career spans just four seasons, Upshaw said he is against the “one-size-fits-all” steroid testing policy that would govern pro sports in the U.S. That law would call for a player to be suspended for two years if he tested positive for steroids.
It’s Upshaw contention that the NFL has show since 1982 that it can police itself, and thus has no need to “out-source” its drug-testing program.
“I’m not saying we’re the gold standard,” he said “but since we’ve started testing we’ve never had a repeat offender.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re trying to build the game up and not tear it down.”
When he’s not confronting the drug issue, Upshaw is dealing with management and labor relations. Concerning Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens’ attempt to renegotiate, Upshaw reminded his audience that he was part of the negotiations that brought Owens to Philadelphia from San Francisco.
“At the time he was happy with the contract, “Upshaw said. “One way or another, it will be worked out.
“It’s pretty clear he has a contract, and if he doesn’t show up (for training camp) when and where he’s supposed to, he will be fined. Until it gets to that point, we (the NFLPA) will not be involved.”
Upshaw said that although both sides appear “pretty well dug-in,” he hoped “cooler heads” would prevail.
Scholarship awards went to Manheim Central student-athletes Tyler Swarr (football, track and field); Steffie Sauder (soccer);James Homan (cross country, tennis); and Leah Hilliard (soccer, tennis, rifle).
by Ed Gruver
Intelligencer Journal Sports Writer