Saturday, June 15, 2024

HIGH ACHIEVERS: 5-time Grey Cup champion Eric Upton truly understood football

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By Martin Cleary

The Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Elks, formerly the Eskimos, are in the midst of a six-day run to celebrate the start of their 75th season.

Ottawa’s Eric Upton, an accomplished and highly-respected offensive lineman with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees as well as the Edmonton Eskimos from 1973-1985, was quietly working in the background, making phone calls to alumni to join him at a table for the Kickoff to 75 Week dinner on Thursday.

He was filled with enthusiasm for the special occasion and excited to visit with the alumni. But Upton wasn’t destined to mingle one final time with his past teammates. Upton died suddenly on May 23. He was 71.

Instead of experiencing the first Kickoff event on Monday, family and friends gathered in Edmonton to pay tribute to Upton at a Celebration of Life ceremony.

Neil Lumsden, the Ontario minister of tourism, culture and sport, was one of those people attending the occasion to remember and reflect on Upton’s life journey and achievements.

Lumsden and Upton had two stints of football together. As a running back, Lumsden greatly benefited from Upton’s role as an offensive guard for three years with the Gee-Gees. In the final five years of each player’s decade in the CFL, Lumsden reunited with Upton in Edmonton, serving as a fullback/running back, while Upton had switched to the centre position and was calling the shots as captain for the offensive line.

In the time leading up to Edmonton’s Kickoff to 75 Week, Upton and Lumsden talked on the phone and were looking forward to coming to the table for an evening of conversation, laughs and a great meal.

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“My memories are mostly about him as a guy versus a player,” said Lumsden, who called him ‘a wonderful man’ and ‘a great family guy.’ Upton is survived by his wife Nancy, children Katie and Steven, and grandchildren Mia and Theo.

Upton cared about the people around him and, if someone needed help, he would step forward without hesitation. Teamwork applied not only to football, but also to life in general.

Eric Upton. Photo:

As a bushy-haired, six-foot, three-inch, 255-pound university offensive lineman sporting a moustache, Upton played his guard position extremely well. He worked in the junior, university and pro trenches for more than 15 years, including his first and only intercollegiate season with the University of Colorado in 1972, after development time with the Ottawa Sooners’ junior program.

During his three years with the Gee-Gees, he was a pivotal player. He was named an Ontario conference all-star in 1973 and 1975 and helped the undefeated Garnet and Grey win the 1975 Vanier Cup national championship under head coach Don Gilbert.

Playing in his fourth and final year with the Gee-Gees, Lumsden rambled for 169 yards on 27 carries in the College Bowl final, including many critical short-yardage situations. Upton played a big role blocking and opening holes for Lumsden as the Gee-Gees defeated the University of Calgary 14-9 before more than 17,000 fans in Toronto.

“He was one of those players who understood the game past the game and got it,” Lumsden said, awarding Upton the ultimate compliment.

Upton had a solid understanding of the sport as a young boy. His father Joe was a tackle and guard for six seasons (1953-57) with the Ottawa Rough Riders as well as a CFL East Conference all-star in 1956.

Eric Upton was selected 18th overall by Edmonton in the 1976 CFL Draft. He played 10 seasons with the Eskimos, won five consecutive Grey Cups (1979-83) and was offensive captain from 1982-85. In 1979, he was selected a CFL Western Conference all-star.

“I joined him again, my good fortune, in Edmonton,” added Lumsden, who was drafted by Toronto in 1986, played for the Argos from 1976-78 and the Hamilton Ticats from 1978-79. “He was a key player at centre. He was the perfect guy for that position because he was smart, understood our offence and systems, and made the calls for blocking.

“He was always astute and smart … when it came to football. He understood how it worked. He was one of the guys who could go from guard to centre, which was a pivotal spot.”

While he wasn’t one of the fastest players on the roster, he knew where to be for each play and get there quick enough to be effective.

“In practices, he learned to do well because they were all good,” Lumsden added. “When you practise with the best, you turn into the best.”

Eric Upton. Photo provided

Upton also is a two-time member of the University of Ottawa Football Hall of Fame. He was inducted as an individual in 2011 and again as part of the 1975 Vanier Cup championship team in 2015.

The Nepean Sports Wall of Fame welcomed Upton into its home for honoured sports figures in 1986.

After Upton announced his retirement as a football player, he worked full-time for more than 35 years in a variety of roles.

He was the CBC’s sales manager for Alberta from 1990-2000 and was vice-president sales for the Edmonton Oilers hockey team from 2000-2008. After serving two years as vice-president sales and marketing with Westvac, he joined the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region for almost two years as its senior advisor, community investments.

His final 10 years were spent at the University of Alberta from 2012-22 as director or assistant dean in the advancement faculty of physical education, recreation and athletics.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 51 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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