TRUCKEE — Five years after NFL Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw's sudden death from pancreatic cancer, his legacy lives on at a cancer treatment and medical research center atop the Sierra Nevada.
A memorial fund Upshaw's family started after he died helped finance the opening last summer of the Gene Upshaw Memorial Tahoe Forest Cancer Center in Truckee.
This year the fund expanded its support to the Tahoe Institute for Rural Health Research, where scientists are studying traumatic brain injury (TBI) — something near and dear to the former Oakland Raider who spoke out about concussions as a player and during 25 years as president of the NFL players' union.
Former Raiders Marcus Allen, Raymond Chester and Nolan Harrison were among those who participated in a recent golf tournament at Grays Crossing that has now raised $500,000 for the programs over the past four years.
"Trophies get old and rusty and dusty, but what you do for your fellow man is what's going to last," Allen told the San Francisco Chronicle (http://tinyurl.com/kkjkmd6).
Chester, the former tight end, said he's glad Upshaw's family has "added traumatic brain injury to the cause."
"Take a baseline test when kids start competing," Chester said. "We have to eliminate long-term injury."
Doctors at the rural health institute are studying the links between concussions and TBI, long-term health issues and possible safety measures as well as trying to devise a system of accurate on-field cognitive tests.
Institute President Thomas Hobday said they are working with the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District to try to educate students early about the dangers of concussions, not only from football, but skiing and other outdoor activities.
Harrison, 44, now works for the National Football League Players Association and has testified before Congress about concussions.
Hobday said Harrison "helped create the vision" of the Tahoe Institute's research, "explaining what it's like and the difficulty in making an objective decision to return to the field."
The former defensive lineman who spent six seasons with the Raiders (1991-96) said before he learned more about TBI, he figured he'd suffered about four concussions during his 10 years in the NFL.
"Knowing what I know now, I guarantee I had hundreds over my 10-year career," Harrison told the Chronicle. "Living in the era of smelling salts and being brought back to life ... now I know most of those were concussive episodes."
He said Upshaw deserved much of the credit for raising visibility of the issue.
"We were in the middle of a lot of the concussion fight," he said, "trying to get sideline neurologists and trying to get the league to do the right thing in terms of admitting different links between TBI and concussion and long-term health issues."
The cancer center, which opened in July 2012, is considered the "crown jewel" of cancer centers serving not only Tahoe-area villages but rural parts of the Sierra foothills, said Terri Upshaw, Upshaw's wife. She said it has everything to help cancer patients cope and recover, from outdoor chemotherapy stations that allow patients to take in the scenic mountain views and an onsite psychologist, to a puzzle room and wig salon.