I am on vacation.  While sitting at the Benito Juarez International Airport last Wednesday I read that a once close acquaintance had passed away. That sounds strange – “a once close acquaintaince” – but sometimes a person can share a moment in your life that is so personal that it never leaves you, and yet you do not know each other well enough to call yourselves friends.

When I knew Gene Upshaw in 1978, he was still a guard with the Oakland Raiders, but he had already stepped forward in the National Football League Players’ Association and was recognized for his leadership skills both on and off the field.  In that year, during the Raiders’ first residence in Oakland, California, I often attended after-game parties with my girlfriend who worked in the Raiders office.  That was how I met Gene, and several of the other team and office members – dancing, partying, celebrating – it was a carefree time in my 20-something life and these boisterous young men and overgrown boys were dance partners and drinking buddies.

Then one afternoon, just short of the Hegenberger Road exit on my way to the Raider offices to see my friend, the radio announced a most devastating event.  It was November 27, 1978, and the beloved mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, had been shot and killed.  The next five minutes was a blur of tears and I pulled into the Raider parking lot in a daze.  As I stepped out of my car, another vehicle pulled in next to me.  It was Gene, and when our eyes met I knew that he’d heard the news, too.  We crossed the meager yards between us and I opened my arms to comfort this hulk of a man.  He fell against me and sobbed.  Not a word was spoken.  When we were both all cried out, we each took a deep breath and walked hand in hand into the office.

I saw Gene only a few times after that.  We never spoke of it again, but even if we just passed each other at a party or on the dance floor, a silent tilt of the head or squeeze of the hand reminded us of the comfort shared between casual acquaintances in a moment of trauma.

Whatever Gene Upshaw’s public popularity might or might not have been when he died on August 20, 2008, Gene will always be for me the embodiment of the tough guy with a tender heart, unafraid to share – or maybe afraid and sharing anyway – the tears that come with deep loss, and a symbol of the lasting impression that a simple touch can create when we reach out to comfort another human being.