The beginning of the end of the National Football League players strike came not in the union's offices in Washington or the owners' headquarters on Park Avenue in New York City. Instead, a conversation between a kicker and a team owner in Kansas City set the wheels in motion and rolling rapidly toward the return of most of the union's 1,585 players Thursday.

Wednesday morning, Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, told his team's union representative, kicker Nick Lowery, that he thought he could persuade the league's other 27 owners to agree to a compromise that would lead to an end to the players strike that had gone on for three weeks. Hunt agreed to the idea of submitting the issues of increasing the players' pensions and severance to an arbitrator; the other issues, such as whether the players would receive more freedom to switch teams, would continue to be discussed by negotiators for the union and the owners.

Thursday morning at 10:15, Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said he called NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was joined on the line by Jack Donlan, executive director of the Management Council, the owners' bargaining arm. Upshaw said he already had talked to Hunt and to the union representatives of each team in separate conference calls and felt he had a deal both sides could live with.

"He killed it," Upshaw, in his first extensive interview since the strike ended, said of Donlan. "He said, 'No way.' No to arbitration on anything."

Donlan said he understood Upshaw already had given up on the idea of arbitration in a telephone conversation with Rozelle at midnight Wednesday, so when Upshaw suggested it Thursday morning, he said no. "That was just one team and one player rep and we're beyond that, anyway," Donlan said he told Upshaw.

"I really believe that 70 percent of the players, at least, would say if they could get an improved deal on pension and severance then we could take something back from being on strike," Lowery said. "To take something back would have been a real big thing in a lot of guys' minds."

By the time Upshaw hung up the phone, the Washington Redskins already had returned en masse to Redskin Park, following through on a decision they had made the night before. Within hours, 10 other teams would follow suit as, according to Upshaw, player representatives around the league were notified in another conference call that no deal was imminent.

"The players decided they'd sacrificed enough and said, 'Let's go back to work,' " Upshaw said. That afternoon, Upshaw announced the 24-day strike was over and the union was filing a federal antitrust suit against the league in hopes of obtaining through the courts what it could not gain at the bargaining table.

But before Upshaw made his announcement, he had one more conversation with Donlan at about noon. Donlan said he offered one final proposal for a back-to-work agreement: the owners would agree to extend the collective bargaining agreement {which had expired Aug. 31} until Feb. 1, 1988, as the union wanted, and would guarantee striking players their places on the rosters for at least three weeks, but the union would have to agree to give up automatic payroll deduction of dues and would have to agree not to strike or bring a lawsuit against the owners. The owners, however, would retain the right to sue the players.

Upshaw said no, hung up and, at 12:15, began another conference call, this one with player representatives. He conducted a vote on a two-point plan: file a lawsuit against the league and go back to work.

According to Upshaw, the vote was 25-3 in favor of returning and suing the league. The three no votes -- two of which came from the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills, according to sources -- came because those player representatives "didn't want to go back without a contract," Upshaw said.

"I remember {Chicago Bears player representative Mike} Singletary saying, 'What can we hang our hats on? What's the bottom line?' " Lowery said. "Even though we seem to have lost sight of some specific points, we had been able to hold out 92 percent of the membership for three weeks. But we were to the point of saying, 'What are the priorities?' You have to do that for your membership. Especially when they've lost three paychecks already."

Upshaw said the players voted to return "when it was obvious that the owners had decided, 'We will not allow the bargaining process to work in any way except for us.' "

Upshaw said that Donlan's rejection of the idea of arbitration was the deciding factor. "No matter what, the Management Council wasn't going to bargain and they made that abundantly clear when they wouldn't go for {Hunt's plan}," Upshaw said.

Donlan said he wasn't acting independently in rejecting the concept. He said Hunt and Jack Steadman, president of the Chiefs, had called him Thursday morning to offer their plan. Donlan said before Steadman finished giving the details he cut him off.

"I told them we were way by that," Donlan said. "Arbitration's off the table and the {executive committee of the Management Council} already voted against any kind of arbitration."

Tex Schramm, president of the Dallas Cowboys and a member of the executive committee, said, "I never heard of anybody wanting to seriously get involved with arbitration until afterward, when I heard about the Hunt thing."

Hunt was unavailable for comment yesterday.

When the players returned, they had no more than they did when they walked out. In fact, they had even less in one respect: because the players ended their strike after the owners' 1 p.m. deadline for reporting in order to collect salary for the week and be eligible for this weekend's games, the returning players were told they would not be able to take the field immediately.

"It was something they thought out at the end just to rub the players' noses in it and make the players blame the union for missing a deadline they indicated was never a problem," Upshaw said.

Although management sources will not confirm Upshaw's assertion that the deadline was flexible, two team executives said there was a measure of payback involved. The executives said they felt the players needed to be more disciplined and suggested that it might not be a bad idea if the players "were taught a lesson" and not allowed to play this week.

"They've {the players} never gone by any rules before," said one owner, who requested anonymity. "The only rules they acknowledge are the rules on the field."

Upshaw had said he sensed the players becoming restless and eager to return long before the strike ended. On Oct. 5, he had met in Chicago from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. with about 85 players. In the course of that meeting, the idea of suing the league was suggested, Lowery said.

"Several players suggested it because our leverage was going down," Lowery said. "Their leverage was going down, too, but not as fast as ours."

Lowery said that Dick Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, rejected the idea, but "the next Monday {in another meeting with players and Upshaw last Monday in Chicago} we suggested it again, but they said {again} it wouldn't work."

Wednesday, at least 89 players crossed picket lines and returned to their teams, bringing the total to about 230 who had broken ranks with the union. Upshaw said that in a conference call at 7 that night some union reps told him their players wanted to go back in, too.

"In that call, {Redskins player representative Neal} Olkewicz was on the line and the Redskins were the only team we knew was going back," Upshaw said. "The reaction was, 'Let 'em go.' "

Upshaw said he did not know if the Redskins planned to stay in camp once they returned, or simply report and see what management's reaction was. During the call, he said, there was confusion about how much solidarity was left.

Upshaw said that as the negotiations, begun in April as the five-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union was running out, wore on, he became more and more frustrated. At one point, the owners said the only thing standing in the way of an agreement was the players' demand for less restrictive free agency. But after the meeting in Chicago on Oct. 5, the union softened its stand on free agency dramatically.

"We moved and moved and moved on our position on free agency, right into their camp and they never moved at all," Upshaw said. "They had told us before that if we moved all the way on free agency, all the other issues would fall into place.

"Donlan was willing to go into a give-and-take situation. He wanted us to give while he did the taking."

Upshaw said he did not blame Rozelle for the breakdown in negotiations, but rather the inner workings of the Management Council. Particularly, he singled out Schramm as wielding immense power and most influencing the six-man executive committee.

"We all know that when it comes down to it, the 28 owners determine what happens in the NFL, not Pete Rozelle," Upshaw said. "Pete is the commissioner of the NFL, Schramm is the commissioner of the scab football league."

"That is not at all true," Schramm said. "I was obviously supportive of the replacement games . . . But having been in charge of the competition committee, people in the media are more prone to come to me about that subject.

"But I was not at all influencing the other owners."

Staff writer Sandra Bailey contributed to this report.