"Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook."

There are no words that strike terror into the heart of an NFL player quite like those. On the surface, they seem like two fairly innocent sentences. But to a free agent or low draft pick, they almost always precede the NFL's most personal insult: being cut.

Getting released has become something of a pastime for the NFL's journeymen, whose annual week of insomnia and restlessness ends at noon today, when rosters must be trimmed to the regulation 47 players.

Among those holding their breath is Redskins tight end Ron Middleton, who has been cut seven times in a five-year career, and is again fighting for a spot. The roster cutdown is generally not good for his health, and this year is no different.

"I've had a headache since {last} Sunday night," he said. "People say 'You've been cut a bunch of times; it must get easier.' But it doesn't."

The process of making cuts is enjoyed by neither the player nor the club, but has given birth to one of pro football's most mystical and feared figures: the turk.

"The turk" is usually an assistant coach or an administrative assistant. He is the individual chosen to deliver the dreaded words to the soon-to-be-departed players. The word "cut" is not used. It doesn't need to be.

"When it's around cut time, you don't want to see the guy," Middleton said. "You get to hiding in your locker this time of year. I try to keep a sign around me at all times 'Turk Not Allowed.' "

For obvious reasons, being assigned the role of turk -- a name derived from the vision of a sword-wielding Arab -- is far from an honor. Whoever serves that role is sure to become an unwelcome sight in the locker room. Players often run away from him, as if that will prevent the inevitable.

"The turk is basically the buffer," said Dick Myers, who served that role for the Redskins in the late 1970s when he was assistant general manager. "It softens the big blow of hearing it directly from the head coach."

Different coaches have different theories on dealing with cut players. Vince Lombardi didn't like to see them. George Allen didn't like confrontations, but still talked to most.

"I see the guys that have been with us," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "If it's a first-time guy, the assistant coaches normally do it. . . . It's not an easy thing to do. You try to do it as gently as you can and give a guy every opportunity to go out the right way."

During the George Allen-Jack Pardee years, Myers shared the role of turk with director of player personnel Tim Temerario.

"It isn't a job you relish unless you're a sadist," said Myers, now athletic director at Creighton University in Omaha. "You're dealing with young people's futures. To be the guy that has to play the turk role was not a lot of fun."

But Temerario -- who claims to be one of the league's original turks -- didn't have a problem with it. "I didn't feel too badly about being forced to tell the kids," he said. "I have a son now who's 26. I knew someday somebody was going to cut him, too."

Temerario, now retired and living in Fort Washington, Md., felt the best way to cut a player was waking him up around 6:30 or 7 in the morning. "They were groggy," he said. "They almost went back to sleep."

Being the turk did result in a number of humorous stories. In 1978, Myers was serving as the turk and searching for free agent defensive end Johnny Owens. "I was looking all over for him," Myers said. "Finally, I see the kid in the {hotel} Jacuzzi, lying down. He came up out of the water, looked up, saw me and sunk right back down under water."

That same year, Myers told veteran linebacker Greg Hartle he was being put on injured reserve.

"He slams his head on the door and went across the room and kicks the concrete wall," Myers said. "He went back and forth doing this for 10 minutes. I was on the bed. I wasn't going to move. After 10 minutes, when I thought he must be brain damaged, he walked out."

In the early 1980s, an angry player did vent his frustrations on the coach, dumping a soda over the head of Colts coach Frank Kush. But not everyone takes being cut as personally.

Former Maryland kicker Jess Atkinson was cut seven times by six different teams, the last time by Indianapolis. By then, he was used to the routine.

"The {Colts'} secretary calls up and says 'Mr. Mitchell wants to see you,' " Atkinson said. "I asked her, 'Was I cut?' She said, 'I'm not really sure.' I said, 'Well, could you ask him? Because, if I don't know, I have to go see him, come back and pack and go to the airport. If I know now, I can pack and go to the airport.' "

Middleton said being cut isn't a problem if it's handled well. The worst part of being an NFL nomad, he said, is the lack of identity.

"I want to have roots somewhere, somewhere where I can be remembered. Around here, you hear about all the old guys. That's what I want. I want them to say, 'Well, Middleton played tight end with the Redskins.' "

Because of his travels, Middleton said he's seen his family for only two months in the past year. "It's hard on the marriage," he said. "I talk to {my son} every day on the phone. Those two months, I wouldn't have traded for anything."

Should one of the Redskins' current turks (the club claims there is not one designated person) seek out Middleton today, it's likely he'll find work somewhere. He always has. But, for others, that may not be the case.

"You've been working so hard just to play ball and suddenly, you're faced with this possibly being the end," said Atkinson, who now covers the Redskins for Channel 4. "Ninety-nine percent of guys leave the game by getting cut. But when you're at the top, you never think of that."