It was early Tuesday afternoon in the Seattle Seahawks' locker room, and wide receiver Sam McCullum had just climbed onto a table to have his ankles taped for practice when Rick Thompson, the son of Seahawks General Manager John Thompson, walked up to him.
"Coach wants to see you and bring your playbook," McCullum recalled Thompson saying, and McCullum knew at that moment he was about to be cut from the team.
Although a starter in all four Seahawks' exhibition games, McCullum, the National Football League Players Association's union representative on the team, was not surprised.
"I was cut because of my activities with the union. I had an inkling of what was going to happen back in the spring. The coaches began telling me I was going to be pushed to keep my job," said McCullum, the Seahawks' second leading receiver last year with 46 catches for 567 yards and three touchdowns. "Then the head coach (Jack Patera) stopped speaking to me.
"There was a lot of ruckus made about the Seahawks' acquiring (wide receiver) Roger Carr (from the Baltimore Colts). They announced it during our game last Friday with San Francisco. They said he can come in to be the answer to our offensive problem. I knew at that time they were trying to get rid of me."
Three days after being placed on waivers, McCullum has become one of the focal points in the stalled contract negotiations between the National Football League and the NFLPA.
Contending McCullum's release represents a blatant and illegal example of harassment of an employe because of protected union activity, the NFLPA has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board and demanded his immediate reinstatement.
That accusation is vigorously denied by John Thompson, who claims the union has singled out the Seahawks for harassment. The NFL Management Council, the league's labor negotiating arm, has sent its general counsel, Sargent Karch, to Seattle to defend the Seahawks against the union accusations.
Meanwhile, 54 of McCullum's teammates, who helped elect him player representative last October, have signed a petition supporting the NFLPA charges. The players had threatened a wildcat strike but last night cornerback Dave Brown, the new player representative, said the players decided they "owed it to the fans" to play the game.
McCullum, who has been claimed on waivers by the Minnesota Vikings, said he's still not sure what he'll do. A veteran of eight previous NFL seasons, McCullum, 29, has averaged 53 catches over the last three seasons. "I believe I have some good years left," he said.
In retrospect, McCullum said, he should have sensed something was amiss soon after he agreed to become player representative. "All my speaking engagements were stopped," he said.
But John Thompson says McCullum was asked several times to speak to groups throughout the Northwest on behalf of the Seahawks. "He said he didn't have time. The club at no time cut him off from speaking engagements," Thompson said.
Thompson also said the acquisition of former all-pro receiver Carr had nothing to do with any plan to get rid of McCullum. "We acquired Roger Carr to upgrade our football team," he said, adding that Carr contacted his old coach, Mike McCormack, now a Seattle assistant, to inquire about playing for the Seahawks.
In the end, he said, it came down to a choice between McCullum and Byron Walker, a rookie free agent from the Citadel.
McCullum, reporting to Patera as ordered, said he was told, "His (Walker's) career is on the way up and your career is on the way down. We tried to trade you, but we couldn't work anything out."
McCullum said he believes the Seahawks are being used as an NFL test case to see just how hard-nosed a club can be in dealing with the union. He said Thompson's former position as executive director of the NFL Management Council has something to do with this. Thompson denied it.
"That's the same old (NFLPA Executive Director) Ed Garvey line," he said.
Looking back over the last year, McCullum said he'd do it all over again. "The players elected me to do a job, and I did it," he said.
But at the moment, he said, he's also a little disillusioned.
"I thought that if I just performed and did my job, I'd still be in the game of football."