The Pentagon was on fire, and the longtime union leader and former Oakland Raiders great could not believe what he was witnessing.
A few minutes later Upshaw and some of his fellow NFLPA executives watched the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold over the television screen, with images of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers ablaze amid reports that terrorists had hijacked commercial jetliners and deployed them as suicide missiles.
He picked up the phone and called NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, whose midtown Manhattan office was only a few miles north of Ground Zero.
"[Upshaw's] whole focus was on the people who worked for the league – did they have family members or friends who might be trapped in the buildings?" Tagliabue recalled Tuesday. "The same went for employees of the players' association. Our thoughts were with the people who were in harm's way. Football was secondary. But when Gene and I talked later that day, it was pretty clear he viewed the situation the same way that I did."
The situation concerned the immediate business of America's preeminent sports league amid a national atmosphere of fear, rage, grief, paranoia and confusion. Specifically, with a slate of regular-season games scheduled to take place five days after the attacks, there were logistical, psychological, financial and moral issues to consider, and very little time to contemplate them.
On Sept. 13, Tagliabue announced that no games would be played that weekend, a decision fully supported by Upshaw and fueled by the passionate convictions of numerous NFL players. A decade later, as the former commissioner prepares to participate in the league's commemoration of the anniversary – he'll spend Sunday night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., watching the New York Jets host the Dallas Cowboys as a guest of his successor, Roger Goodell – few would argue that Tagliabue made the wrong call.
At the time, however, many voices, including a vocal faction of the owners who employed Tagliabue, were calling for the schedule to continue uninterrupted as a sign that terrorism couldn't derail the nation's business.
"There was some feeling that carrying on was what was called for," Tagliabue says. "But in my mind you couldn't continue with business as usual, because this was not business as usual. This was a cosmic, unprecedented event, and playing football games that weekend was not appropriate."
As one prominent owner recalls, "Most of the owners thought we should play the games, and when Paul made the decision to wait a week, internally it was not a popular one. He took a risk, but he did what he felt was right. And I think, looking back, we'd all agree it was the respectful and appropriate move."
Yet, even if Tagliabue had been of a different mindset, it's likely the commissioner would have faced such strong opposition from the players that attempting to stage the games would have been impractical, if not impossible. In locker rooms across the country – and, later, on an impassioned conference call that included Upshaw, members of the NFLPA's executive committee and key players from the Jets, New York Giants and Washington Redskins, whose regions were most impacted by the tragedy – players emerged as voices of reason in a charged and tenuous atmosphere.
"Of course everybody remembers Tagliabue as the hero, but it wasn't all him," says former NFL tackle and union official Roman Oben, who spent the 2001 season with the Cleveland Browns. "It started with the players and the executive committee. The players were concerned about their safety, and they also wanted to show respect for the victims and acknowledge the severity of the situation. And they were very, very emphatic about not wanting to play."
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When players reported for work on Wednesday, typically the longest and most intense day of their practice week, they were as stunned and unnerved as most Americans by the events of the previous morning. With no decision yet from Tagliabue, coaches proceeded as though the games would be played. In most locker rooms, players met privately to discuss the situation and pass along their thoughts to Upshaw and his fellow NFLPA leaders via their union reps.
"You had different perspectives at first," remembers Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who was then with the St. Louis Rams. "You had [President] George Bush's mantra: 'We can't stop doing what we do, or otherwise, they win.' There's this fine line between where football is therapeutic for people to come out and enjoy themselves and for it being time to grieve.
"Playing that Sunday, I didn't feel like it gave people enough time, and in the end that's how most of us felt. A tragedy had just happened. Going out and being on separate teams wasn't as important as everyone being American. We needed to be one at that time – not Rams vs. 49ers."
Some intra-team discussions were far more charged. Perhaps the most extreme example occurred at New Orleans Saints headquarters, where volatile offensive lineman Kyle Turley reacted angrily to a temporary relocation plan floated by coach Jim Haslett the day after the attacks.
"He told us we were going to go to Pittsburgh to practice with the Steelers that week until things settled down," Turley recalls. "I [expletive] went nuts in a team meeting. I said, 'I'm not going to Pittsburgh, and I don't know who the [expletive] is.'
"Players were bitching about their paychecks, not knowing if they were gonna get paid. I was pissed, as I normally am, saying, 'How can you guys focus on money right now? How can you coaches be talking about football? Why do you want to uproot us from our families and take us to Pennsylvania, where one of the [expletive] planes crashed?'
"I stood up on the table and went kind of crazy. I threw a banana against the wall, and it splattered everywhere. I said, 'You know what, [expletive] all you guys. I'm going to join the Marines.'"
Turley cleaned out his locker and headed to his car in the players' parking lot, and when Haslett followed him and tried to calm him down, the lineman recalls, "We almost got in a fight. I love Jim Haslett, he's one of the best coaches I've ever had. But I was crazed.
"Big [defensive tackle] Norman Hand grabbed me around the waist, and [safety] Sammy Knight grabbed Haslett, and they finally pulled us apart. Then we all went back in and had another meeting. Haslett stood up and said, 'OK, so we're not going to Pittsburgh. … We're gonna stay here 'til we figure out what's going on and hold our ground.' Then we had a practice in shorts, and every coach and every player came up to me and said, 'Thank you – I did not want to go to Pittsburgh.' "
Recalls Haslett: "He was a little crazy. But the whole country was on edge, not just him."
This was especially true in the New York and D.C. metropolitan areas, and players for the Jets, Giants and Redskins helped add context to the tragedy for their peers in other cities.
"We had smoldering remains across the river, and unclaimed cars in our parking lot," recalls ex-Giants halfback Tiki Barber. "There is no question [not playing was the right call]. We all had to mourn as individuals before we could build our resolve as a nation."
Former Tennessee Titans halfback Eddie George was on the NFLPA's conference call with Upshaw and members of the executive committee, one which left the late union leader convinced that playing that weekend was not an option.
"I just remember how upset Michael Strahan was," George says of the former Giants defensive end. "They could still see the smoke [from the Twin Towers] from their practice fields. He talked about how the city itself was in a state of flux. He was giving us a play-by-play of what was going on in the city – the rescue efforts, the bomb threats. That really made the decision, Michael's description.
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"There were security issues. We were still in a state of shock. We didn't know what would happen next. When you see the World Trade Center crumbling before your eyes, and it's real, cheering for a team in a stadium doesn't seem realistic. We decided, 'This is a great American tragedy that will be talked about for 100 years or more, long after we're gone. It's bigger than the game.' "
Tagliabue recalls that when he and Upshaw spoke on Thursday, two days after the attacks, the union leader related many of the players' poignant comments, and specifically those of several Jets, Giants and Redskins. Given that the latter two teams were scheduled to host games that Sunday, the concerns were both practical and emotional. Says Oben: "Some players told Gene, 'We're not playing – period.' "
The commissioner didn't need to be convinced. His view of the tragedy, which would claim approximately 3,000 civilian lives, was shaped by his stint in the late-'60s as a young policy analyst for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, when considering doomsday scenarios was part of the job.
"I could see immediately that this was an attack that most people would regard as unthinkable: The commandeering of civilian aircraft and making them into intercontinental missiles," Tagliabue says. "The loss of civilian life was unprecedented. It was an unthinkable act of aggression. That distinguished it right from the outset.
"In my experience at the Pentagon, in terms of what kinds of threats and actions were contemplated by people anticipating the worst this was beyond most people's comprehension of what 'the worst' was."
At the same time, Tagliabue understood the case for keeping the schedule intact. For one thing, the league had a history of plowing through tragedy: Games kicked off minutes after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, and again in 1963 two days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination.
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Yet Tagliabue was well aware that his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, had told numerous people that the greatest regret of the legendary commissioner's tenure was not cancelling the games out of respect for Kennedy.
"People talked about how President [Franklin] Roosevelt had urged Major League Baseball to keep playing during World War II to keep morale up," Tagliabue says. "People referenced commissioner Rozelle's decision to play after President Kennedy was killed. I knew what all the precedents were, but I also felt that there was no precedent, so what people were talking about as precedents did not really apply. Remember, fear was overwhelming, and with that there's a risk of paralysis. I was reminded of Roosevelt saying, 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' "
The goal, in Tagliabue's mind, was to bridge the gap between honoring the gravity of the moment and providing emblematic inspiration to a fan base eager to display its collective resolve.
"It was clear to me that the NFL had come to be a huge symbol of the qualities Americans like to see in themselves – resilience, working through adversity, never giving up," he says. "The NFL had to do something. The dominant atmosphere was one of death, devastation, fear and paralysis. Put it all together and the thing to do was recognize the despicable nature of the attacks and the horrible loss of life. You did that by canceling games and getting your priorities straight. And then you came back the next week to show resilience and that we were all standing tall in the face of adversity and carrying on."
If the commissioner's decision was clear-cut, the practical mechanics of cancellation were a bit tricky. It was the second week of the '01 regular season, and the San Diego Chargers had a scheduled bye that weekend. (Because there were 31 NFL teams back then, at least one team was off each week.) That meant that if the games weren't rescheduled, the Chargers would play 16 contests while every other NFL team would have a 15-game season.
Moving the full slate of games to Jan. 5-7, the first weekend after the scheduled end of the regular season – which is what Tagliabue decided to do – carried its own set of complications. Because there was no bye week scheduled between the conference title games and the Super Bowl for the 2001 campaign, the only way to end the season on time would have been to speed up the playoffs, either by staging midweek games in the wild-card round (which was considered) or by shrinking the field to eight teams instead of 12.
The latter scenario served as the league's tentative plan before Tagliabue focused on the possibility of moving the Super Bowl back a week. This, too, was messy: New Orleans, the scheduled host of Super Bowl XXXVI, was the site of an automobile dealers' convention the following week, and hotel rooms had been booked well in advance.
Ultimately, after floating a plan to move the title game to another site, the NFL offered enough in the way of compensation to strike a deal with the automobile dealers, swapping dates with the previously scheduled convention and facilitating the first-ever February Super Bowl.
In the end, no games were lost, and the Patriots defeated the Rams in a wholly entertaining and memorable Super Bowl at the Superdome. Tagliabue, who retired in 2006 after 17 years as commissioner, had known long before then that his decision to not play after 9/11 had been the proper one.
"The fact that it was the right call, to me, was confirmed the following week [12 days after the attacks] when I went to Kansas City to see the Giants play the Chiefs," Tagliabue says. "It was a game that featured two of the oldest, most respected owners in [the Chiefs'] Lamar Hunt and [the Giants'] Wellington Mara, and Gene and I went because of that. There's a photo of the four of us on the field beforehand, and it's emotional to look at because the other three men are no longer with us. I remember the moment so well."
What Tagliabue remembers most vividly was the chill he felt as the Giants charged through the Arrowhead Stadium tunnel and soaked up the symbolic warmth of a battered yet resolute nation.
"When that crowd erupted with applause for the Giants as the opposing team appeared on the field, it was an incredible symbol of unity and an understanding of what happened in New York, that these football players were representing New York's citizens," Tagliabue says. "It was what you hoped for, and it was tremendous. That said it all – that we'd done the right thing by [pausing], and now we could move on, together – and I think the 10 years since then have confirmed it."
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