‘Dignity’ For The Living And The Dead

By Harry Carson
Updated: August 28, 2008

Gene UpshawNEW YORK — When I was in college I watched my father’s health deteriorate over a three to four-week period where he went from walking and being independent to being bedridden and unable to care for himself.

During that period of time he would lose his balance and fall, he was unable to shave, bathe or even feed himself. He eventually deteriorated to the point where he was unable to control his bodily functions.

When I cleaned him up and attempted to make him comfortable in bed my father would apologize and cry thinking he was a burden.

As a little boy growing up I realized that my father was not the best father in the world! There were many times when he worked all week and when paid on Friday he would make his stop at places and have a drink with his buddies.

By the time he got home his money was all gone.

My family paid the price by not having food to eat or having our electricity or water turned off. My heart raced when I first realized what an eviction notice placed on our door was about.

My father never came to a football practice or game while I was in high school or college. I didn’t always like what my father did or didn’t do when it came to taking care of his family but I always loved and respected my Father!

When he passed away I sat in the first row at the service remembering the good things about him and I chose to overlook the bad. But the thing that I reflected on the most was the end of his life when my father felt he lost his dignity!

As athletes (and especially African-American athletes growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement) we have been trained to carry ourselves with pride and dignity.

Even on the lowest level of football, on the field your pride and dignity are challenged by your coaches and by your opponents. Those who are able to withstand adversity and rise to the top are usually the ones that we admire and want to emulate.

There are many players who played before me, with and against me and since I’ve played, that I have truly admired who have taken their last snap. Gene Upshaw is the latest former player to go home to be with The Father. My family and all who have played the game extend our condolences to the Upshaw family.

I’m honored to have had the opportunity to play against Gene on Sundays and have always considered him a friend. That became even more evident when I was able to join him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as a member of the NFL Alliance as we worked together to develop programs to help former NFL Players and their families.

It was clear that we had our differences when it came to the plight of the retired players but we were always able to communicate, agree or disagree, respect one another and still be friends.

One of my fondest memories of Gene was in 2007 while in Canton for HOF induction activities he along with Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke with Hall of Fame members at a closed door meeting. So much had been going back and forth in the media between Gene and Joe DeLamielleure.

I stood up and spoke to Gene and the other HOF members and encourage the two to shake hands to resolve whatever problems that had either been blown out of context or out of proportion. They laughed, shook hands and pat one another on the back.

On any team players do have their disagreements and at times they might get into a fight on the field but at the end of the day there is still a respect for one another. I could understand Gene’s position as the Head of the NFLPA but I also understood the passion Joe and m any other former players feel as they have seen former players lose their dignity!

We all mourn the passing of Gene Upshaw. He was one of us! One of the many lessons I learned as a Football Player, a Man, a Black Man and as the Son of my Father is regardless of the circumstances that get you to the end those who have played the game at the highest level deserve respect.

We should continue to press to make the system better for all retired players so that whenever our end comes there can be a certain degree of dignity we can have during that process.