WASHINGTON -- A stirring mix of laughter and tears filled the concert hall of the Kennedy Center on Tuesday as family, teammates and colleagues celebrated the life of Hall of Fame lineman and longtime NFL union head Gene Upshaw.
"He was my friend. He was my brother. I will never forget him," said Art Shell, who played alongside Upshaw on the Oakland Raiders offensive line for more than a decade. "Uppy, I'll miss you."
About 1,000 people gathered for the three-hour service, which featured the strong, impressive voices of the Metropolitan Baptist Church choir and speakers who recited hilarious anecdotes and other fond memories about the man whose toughness on the football field was matched only by his determination at the negotiating table as the executive director of the NFL Players Association for 25 years.
"He didn't just tell us to eat our dinner," recalled his son, Justin Upshaw. "He told us to 'eat every stinking bite or I'll poke it down your throat.'"
Upshaw died Aug. 20 of pancreatic cancer, which had been diagnosed only days earlier. Very few people knew he was sick, and the suddenness of his departure at age 63 was a shock to the football world. Even television analyst John Madden, Upshaw's former coach with the Raiders, found himself at a loss for words.
"I'm thinking right now Gene's up in heaven," Madden said near the end of his remarks. "And he's looking down, and he has a quip on everything. ... He's probably saying, 'John, you've been up there long enough. Why don't you go sit down?'
"I just want to say, for over 40 years ..."
Madden stopped, fighting back tears. He couldn't finish the sentence.
"I'm just going to sit down, like Gene said," said Madden, who then left the stage.
Most of the guests wore a pin with the letters GU and the No. 63, Upshaw's jersey number. NFL players will wear a uniform patch with a similar design this season, and the image will also be stenciled on the fields at all 16 games this weekend. Huge photos of Upshaw, from childhood to NFLPA leader, adorned the stage.
Shell recalled Upshaw's gift for gab and said: "Right now, he's wearing God's ear out." Marvin Upshaw recalled his brother's three loves: "He loved God. He loved his family, and he loved football."
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who negotiated labor peace with Upshaw, said Upshaw was "hardheaded" and always late for every meeting but had "an intensity to excel at whatever he did."
"I've never had a better rival, a better teammate or a better friend," Tagliabue said. "Gene Upshaw was one of a kind."
Another of Upshaw's sons wondered what his father would make of such a grand send-off.
"He would huff and puff about all this," Eugene Upshaw III said. "But he would be grateful."