Gene Upshaw,  Ed Garvey (copy)

Ed Garvey, right, announces the NFL Players Association's strike in New York on Sept. 20, 1982. Garvey, who organized the players union and was its executive director from 1971 to 1983, was joined at the press conference by Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA president who succeeded him as executive director until his death in 2008.

My longtime friend Ed Garvey passed away more than two-and-a-half years ago.

Yet it was like he was in my living room last week while I was reading Rob Zaleski's just-released book, "Ed Garvey Unvarnished."

Zaleski, a former Cap Times sports editor and then a news and feature columnist for our newspaper, has written a book based on 17 one-on-one interviews he had with Garvey in 2011, just after Republican Scott Walker was elected governor and began his infamous assault on labor unions.

The technique Zaleski employs — he likens it to a Bill Moyers interview or the popular Playboy magazine interviews of old — allows Ed to speak in his own voice. For me, it was like reliving the many lunches Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and I shared with Ed over the years, lunches where he'd expound upon the sorry state of the Democratic Party, the failings and meanness of Republican politicians and his own progressive philosophy — all of it interspersed with tales from his NFL players' union days.

Those days — Garvey served as the NFLPA's executive director — propelled Ed into the national spotlight when he was forced by the league's unyielding anti-union owners to engineer two strikes to get the owners to even consider serious negotiation with the players.

Although those NFL days constitute a fraction of Zaleski's interviews, Garvey tells some surprising stories about both players and owners and his close relationship with the players' union's first president, the late John Mackey, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts' tight end.

Garvey tells Zaleski that despite their public ownership, the Green Bay Packers were "terrible" in their opposition to the union and he reveals how then-Packers quarterback Bart Starr, a devout conservative Republican from Alabama, actually became a key in saving it.

The union decided it needed to strike to save the players' pensions, which were essential — especially for linemen who were treated like fodder, used for two or three years and then discarded. When player reps from each of the teams met in Chicago to decide on the strike, quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas, Daryle Lamonica and Len Dawson voiced their opposition to striking.

That's when Starr stepped in.

"I make a lot more money because Ken Bowman is blocking for me. In fact, I make more than I should because of Ken. He's a player rep. I will not go to work until Ken Bowman tells me to go to work," Ed relates Starr saying.

The other quarterbacks quickly changed their minds.

The bulk of Zaleski's book has Garvey commenting on everything from his childhood in conservative Burlington, Wisconsin, to his creation of Fighting Bob Fest that drew thousands of progressives to chautauquas in Baraboo and Madison. The 2019 version was held this past Friday night at Madison's Barrymore Theater.

My favorite interview in the book is Garvey's explanation on how politicians like Walker get elected, in which he insists the Democratic Party's narrow thinking and clumsy ideas allowed it to happen — a recurring discussion at our lunches.

The reader will discover what Ed considered as victories and his remorse when he suffered losses. But through it all, Zaleski's book lays out before us and one of the most colorful and influential icons in Wisconsin history.

Published by the UW Press, it's available at bookstores everywhere.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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