Hall of Famer. The phrase conjures up grainy black-and-white film and single-bar facemasks.
Courtney Upshaw may be too young to be in the Hall of Fame. But his body of work included enough highlight reels as a Eufaula High star, an Alabama All-American and a Super Bowl champion to earn him a prominent spot in the 2019 class of the Wiregrass Sports Hall of Fame.
Upshaw, 29, insists he’s not retired.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I was a free agent last year. Worked out for Seattle a few months ago, still waiting on them to call me. I’m not ready to give it up yet.
“But if it don’t happen, I’m OK with it. It’s time to move on and do something different. Got three kids I continue to focus on taking care of. My daughter, London, is 7. C.J. (Courtney Julian) is 5. And King William is nine months.”
Upshaw won the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens in his rookie season. He lost the Super Bowl two years ago with Atlanta Falcons. Winning is better.
“With the Falcons, we were playing Tom Brady and the Patriots,” he noted. “At the same time, we were up 28-3. We lost that game and I didn’t cry – because of the simple fact we should have won that game. If we’d gone in there and got whooped, it might be different.
“Even in high school, when we lost the state championship game (to Athens 10-7), I didn’t cry. We were the better team. No way we should have lost that game. When we should win I don’t cry. If it’s a better team that beats us maybe it’s different. I’m not saying the Patriots weren’t better – but that day, for most of that game, we were better.”
Those familiar with Upshaw’s story understand how many different outcomes it could have had. His own family supported him, of course. But he also had coaches and their families and a great friend in Will McKenzie – who has his child’s middle name – and the McKenzie family in his corner, too.
“They were great friends and they are still to this day. Nothing’s changed,” Upshaw said of the McKenzies. “Big Georgia fans. I almost went to Georgia for that reason.”
Upshaw nearly quit the sport in high school. He almost did the same on his very first day of summer conditioning work at Alabama – in the face of famed conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s infamous 110s.
“Coming from Eufaula, the way coach (Dan) Klages did it, it was easy compared to there, of course,” Upshaw explained. “You hear all the stories of the fourth quarter program and coach Cochran, of course. It was different. I actually called my family and told them I was thinking about coming home.”
Something stopped him. He had seen what happens to guys who give up too easily.
“I thought about how a lot of guys who came before me – even if they went to Tuskegee or another small school – they always ended up back home,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’
“So I stuck it out. The 110s never got easier all four years. They were still just as bad. It was something I had to change my mental approach, get my mind right.”
The games were the easy part, and the fun part. He was part of that transformative 2008 recruiting class at Alabama that head coach Nick Saban talks to this day about launching his program into what is has become.
Remember, Alabama in 2008 was not what it is today. Upshaw is proud of that class’ role.
“I played in that Alabama-Mississippi game with guys like B.J. Scott, Michael Williams, Brandon Lewis, Jerrell Harris, a lot of other guys who signed there,” he said. “I think Brandon Lewis and Michael Williams were already committed as defensive ends to Alabama before I committed.
“I know it crossed my mind in reading the articles about that class that we could change Alabama. It wasn’t that we talked about it, I just had a feeling this is what it was going to be.”
They got a late cherry on top when Julio Jones committed.
“He was definitely the big fish of the whole 2008 class. … When we got Julio we really felt it was going to be like it ended up being. We felt we were going to be dominant,” Upshaw said. “A big thing for us, though, it was mainly about beating Auburn. Auburn had beaten Alabama six times in a row. It was about getting Alabama back.
“When Julio decided to commit, we knew it was going to be different. I played with him in the All American Game and the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. I’ve known and played with Julio a long time.”
When Upshaw went to Atlanta, the two were reunited as teammates.
“He’s never changed,” Upshaw said. “He’s the same Julio, man. You never hear about him getting in trouble off the field. You don’t hear about none of that. He comes in and goes to work. He’s the most dominant player in the locker room.”
Upshaw played that role on the field in several key games for Alabama. His best games typically came against Auburn. And, of course, he was the Defensive MVP in the Crimson Tide’s national championship victory over LSU after the 2011 season.
He had seven tackles, one sack and one tackle for loss in that game. Upshaw set the tone early when LSU ran an option on its first or second series. Upshaw smashed quarterback Jordan Jefferson, then ran down and tackled running back Michael Ford. It may have been the best prepared Alabama team in the Nick Saban era before a title game.
LSU beat Alabama 6-3 in overtime in Tuscaloosa during the regular season. The Tigers went on to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
“When they were getting ready for that game, we were practicing. We were getting ready for them,” Upshaw said. “We sat at our banquet and we watched as they selected us for the championship game and we went crazy. Right then, I was like, ‘We’re fixin’ to win.’
“It was just the mindset of the whole team. We should have won the first game, hands down. Again, another game I didn’t cry about. I was more (mad) than anything. We handled business the second time. You saw what happened. Everybody saw that.”