Gene Upshaw was the first modern-era player who performed exclusively as a guard to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an honor that would have seemed highly unlikely in his early years, since he didn't even play football until his senior year in high school.
Although Upshaw (born 1945) won a scholarship to Texas A&I College, it came only after he got a tryout as a walk-on. There, the 6'5", 255-pound Upshaw sparkled. He played center, tackle, and end and earned NAIA All-American honors as a senior.
The Oakland Raiders selected Gene in the first round of the 1967 draft. Raiders managing general partner Al Davis had already envisioned Upshaw as the guard who could contain the big defensive tackles like Buck Buchanan of the Raiders' arch rival, the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I figured if Buchanan was going to play for the Chiefs for the next 10 years, we better get some big guy who could handle him," Davis said. "Those two guys put on some stirring battles over the years."
Over the next 15 seasons, Upshaw, who would miss just one game due to injury, was an integral part of a team that would play in three American Football League and seven American Football Conference championship games as well as three Super Bowls.
During his first 14 seasons, the Raiders won an incredible 75 percent of their games, with a 148-47-7 regular-season record. An extremely effective lead blocker on wide running plays, Gene spearheaded the offensive line that made the Raiders' rushing attack the most feared in the league during the 1970s. "That's my play," he justifiably bragged. "That's where I get my satisfaction in football."
A team leader, Upshaw was the Raiders' offensive captain for eight years, was an All-AFL or All-AFC choice eight times, and played in six straight AFC/NFC Pro Bowls as well as the 1968 AFL All-Star Game. He became head of the NFL Players Association in 1987.