Barney was young, only thirteen years old, when his life was cut short on that summer day in May of 1973. Barney would have turned fourteen the next month, almost to the day, and would have started Blanco High School the next fall.
Even if you’re not from Blanco you know the name Upshaw, and if you don’t you’re living under a rock. The Upshaw’s have an uncanny ability to make it BIG in the sports arena and Barney was already showing great potential to be no exception, even at his young age. His brother Willy, or “Chuggy” as we called him in school, went on to play baseball for the Toronto Bluejays. His cousin, Marvin, played for the Cleveland Browns and another cousin, Gene, played for the Oakland Raiders and held the position of President for The NFL Players Association until he died last year. I could probably go on and on about all the accomplishments the Upshaw’s have contributed to sports, but this story is about my friend Barney.
Barney played Little League and Jr. High football until he broke his shoulder the season before the accident. According to his dad, football wasn’t really his strong suit anyway. “Baseball and basketball was where he shined,” Mr. Upshaw said. He shared that it made him proud to watch his son play sports. In basketball, he was probably the best there was on any team in the district at the time. Mr. Upshaw went on to tell me about the times he watched his son pitch for the baseball team and how good he was and how happy he seemed playing sports. He also shared that the last picture taken of Barney was when he won first place at a tennis tournament. It will proudly be displayed at the 60th wedding anniversary he and his wife will be celebrating with family and friends over Mothers Day weekend.
Barney wasn’t a big guy, but he was fast. Regardless if it was football, baseball, basketball, tennis or track; if there was victory or any points made, you know Barney contributed and probably a lot too. I remember calling him “speed demon” especially on the basketball court. He was so fast it was sometimes hard to keep track of where he was on the court. I remember asking him if the size of the guys he played against was intimidating. He said, “I’m glad I’m not that big because when they hit the floor, its gotta hurt.”
I thought it might be interesting for you to know just why I sat down and wrote this tribute to Barney. You see a few weeks ago I woke up around two in the morning and Barney was on my mind, he comes to mind often but this time it was different. As I laid there desperately trying to fall back to sleep I found myself going down memory lane. For beginners it dawned on me that Barney would be turning fifty in June of this year. I wondered how his parents might be doing or if the family was still in Blanco. I thought about Barney’s thirteen siblings and specifically the ones I knew from school like Chuggy and Laura. I thought about Barney’s smile - what a great smile and a laugh that was contagious. I thought about what a good, loyal, trusting friend he was to so many and how much he was admired by his peers, coaches and teachers. I remember when I tried out for cheerleader I was so nervous and Barney said “don’t worry about it you got it hands down” and he was right, well I don’t know about hands down but I did make it. He helped his peers believe in ourselves, he encouraged us, he made us laugh and everyone wanted to be his friend.
One night after a football game while waiting for my mother to pick me up I found myself to be one of the last ones there when Barney walked up and said he would wait with me. At the time we lived out on FM 1888 and it would take a little while for my mother to get there and my sweet friend Barney didn’t want me waiting alone. While waiting it started to rain and it was a down pour. Back then the cheerleaders didn’t order uniforms and pompoms out of a catalog, we made our own. Our pompoms were made out of something along the line of crepe paper and needless to say mine never looked the same after that rainy night. Barney thought this was funny because for weeks after that I had blue and gold stains on my hands from the crepe paper dye. Anyway back to waiting for my mom it was raining hard and finding cover was not happening so we made the best of it. I remember Barney holding his head back filling his mouth with rain water, posing like a fountain and spitting water out of his mouth. Though it sounds silly it was funny and of course I followed suit and it ended with us spitting water at each other. I remember talking about music and who our favorite artist was at the time and somehow Janis Joplin came up. Barney started singing her Mercedes Benz song and threw out a couple great dance moves once again this was pretty funny so I followed suit. Barney stopped, looked at me with an expression on his face as though to say...what in the world…and said “you got good dance moves but don’t ever sing again you’re hurting my ears.” We started laughing and couldn’t stop you know those times when something just kind of strikes you as funny and laughter breaks out? Then you think about the thing that was funny and the laughter starts up again? All we had to do is look at each other and we would start laughing again and it was great. When my mom arrived Barney and I got in the car and on the way to take Barney home the laughter outbreaks continued to happen even without either one of us saying a word. It must have been catching, one of those contagious Barney laughs because my mom laughed with us and she didn’t even know why.
Later that year my dad was offered a job transfer which meant we would have to move to Austin and he accepted. So we sold our place on the Blanco River, packed up and rented a house in town just down the street from the courthouse while our new home in Austin was being built. It was a bitter sweet time because I loved the house on the river and selling it meant we wouldn’t be living in Blanco much longer but the idea of living in town was pretty exciting. Though there wasn’t and probably still isn’t much to do in Blanco we always found ways to have fun just as I suspect kids still do today. Back then the only traffic light in town was a blinking light and at that location there was a movie theater which was “the meeting spot”. If there weren’t things already going on like the street dances on the square we made our own fun. Hanging out on the river – location not disclosed in case it’s still a hangout - with a group of friends was a favorite, we sometimes walked to the cemetery to tell scary stories, meeting at the Bowling Alley for a burger and fries and listening to music on the jukebox was often done and of course during football season going to the Friday night home game was a given. After living in Austin all these years and dealing with heavy traffic, high taxes and a faster pace of life I often find myself longing for the Blanco way of life.
It was a day in May, it was 1973 and I was approaching the end of my freshman year of high school in Austin when the phone rang. My mother answered it and after hanging up she walked into my room with tears in her eyes and delivered the news about Barney’s accident. I’ll never forget that day but then on the other hand it all seems kind of foggy. “There was an accident and Barney Upshaw”…her voice started to fade and I didn’t want to hear what I knew was coming next. I remember feeling numb. “He’s dead,” she said. I blurted out, “WHAT…WHAT DID YOU SAY”? She continued, “he was with a friend…they were on his friend’s bike…Barney was riding on the handlebar when they were struck by a car and Barney was killed.” I remember thinking this couldn’t be, this just couldn’t be! I was in disbelief and it didn’t seem real! “It just simply couldn’t be” I kept saying to myself. I also remember the day reality set in and how hard I cried. It seemed like the tears kept coming and they continued to come off and on for several days. I don’t think I’d ever cried that hard until my sister’s death a few years later. I hadn’t ever experienced losing a friend to death prior to Barney. I couldn’t understand why someone who had so much to offer and so much potential could have his life cut short at such a young age. I remember feeling bad for letting an entire school year go by without calling to say hello or just to catch up, write a letter, send a card, something. I remember feeling sad for his parents, his brothers and sisters, his friends, coaches, teachers and all the others whose lives he touched. But I also remember feeling blessed to have known Barney and fortunate to have been his friend.
I’m happy to have those memories of the fun times and the great laughs I shared with Barney and though it was not for very long it’s better than not at all. After having a special friend like Barney then losing him I would just like to make this
suggestion…if you haven’t talked to a friend in a while pick up the phone and call that person. Don’t text them, don’t e-mail them, call them because you never know what tomorrow might bring. And one other thing, this is actually a request, it might sound silly but it’s something I’m going to ask of everyone reading this story. My request is that on June 17th 2009 - the day Barney would have turned 50 years old - you sing happy birthday to Barney even if it’s in silence like me. After all he told me to never sing again, out loud anyway, and I wouldn’t want to hurt his ears…haha. Thank you!