Sam McCullum. Courtesy Montana State University

Sam McCullum

Class of 2018

 
 

Sam McCullum

McCullum giving back to the game that has brought him so much

 

When Sam McCullum hauled in the first touchdown in the history of the Seattle Seahawks more than 40 years ago, it was just the next in a series in a life filled with firsts. 

McCullum was the first athlete to play high school football in Montana and go on to play in the Super Bowl. The Kalispell Flathead alum was one of the first former Bobcats to get drafted into the NFL after becoming one of the first African-American standouts in Northwest Montana. 

And the polished, articulate former wide receiver has been one of the leaders on the forefront fighting for rights for NFL players, both current and former, as a respected NFL Trustee, a role he still thrives in today. 

In a life of firsts that now includes being the first skill player who played college football at Montana State to be induced into the Montana Football Hall of Fame, McCullum has spent the latter portion of his life not concentrated on finishing in the lead. Instead, he’s concentrated on helping fellow former football players into finding ways to flourish after their days staring on the gridiron are finished. 

“Gale Sayers probably said it best when he left the game,” McCullum said in an interview in February. “He said the hardest thing is to fill that void after the applause stop. Once the applause stop coming in – every time you do something good when you play, they applaud you. You give a nice speech, they applaud you. You give an autograph, they applaud you. 

“When you are done, there is no more applause. What happens? Who fills that void?”

McCullum received plenty of applause during his charmed football career. He was a first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection after a record-setting junior year in 1972. He left MSU as the school’s all-time leader in touchdown catches with 16, an impressive number given MSU’s dedication to running the football. 

After being selected in the 1974 NFL Draft, McCullum became the second former Bobcat — along with fellow Montana Football Hall of Fame member Jan Stenerud — and the sixth MSU alum to play in the Super Bowl when the Vikings fell to the Pittsburgh Steelers in January of 1975. 

In 1976, McCullum helped Seattle usher in its second professional sports franchise. He caught a Jim Zorn pass for the first touchdown in Seahawks’ history, one of 26 touchdowns he would catch in an NFL career that spanned 10 seasons, 129 games and 85 starts. 

McCullum caught 274 passes for 4,017 yards in career that included six seasons in Seattle and four seasons in Minnesota — he returned to the Vikings for the final two years of his career in 1982 and 1983. 

“I really didn’t expect him to do what he did in the NFL,” Legendary Montana State trainer Chuck Karnop said in February. “If they are still alive, there are two or three pro scouts that would say they were lukewarm on him as a pro player. The important thing about that to me is that he went on, that he did so darn well. 

“That’s the part I’m not surprised about because he is one of those guys who really had presence and knew how to fit into a situation. For him to be able to go to Seattle or Minnesota and fit in with the other players and the talents they had and carve out a niche for himself, that was not a surprise at all.”

After blossoming as a senior at Flathead, McCullum could have gone to Colorado State, Colorado, Washington, Washington State or either in-state Big Sky Conference schools. He eventually chose MSU so he could be close to his family – his father had recently retired from the United States Air Force and had a job as an electrician with the Anaconda Copper Company. 

Even though his family moved back to Minnesota when he dad got a job with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after McCullum’s senior year, the wide receiver stayed, to helped lay the foundation for upcoming greatness for the Bobcats. McCullum set Montana State’s single-season record for touchdown catches with 12 in 1972 during MSU’s run to the first of two Big Sky titles it would win under Sonny Holland. 

“He was one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around,” former Montana State quarterback and assistant coach Dennis Erickson, McCullum’s primary recruiter, said in February. “He was fast, caught the football and had great feet. He was a great kid who athletically was special in my opinion as far as running, jumping, catching, things like that. 

“He was special, boy. We ran the football pretty well. We had some tailbacks but they brought guys up to stop the run game and he was one-on-one and the matchups were good. He just ran by people that (1972) season.”

MSU went 7-4 in McCullum’s senior year, three seasons prior to Holland leading the Bobcats to their second national championship, the first as an NCAA Division II member. Former MSU defensive tackle Bill Kollar, himself a member of the Montana Football Hall of Fame, was selected with the 23rd pick in the 1974 draft. McCullum was selected by the Minnesota Vikings 209 picks later in the 9th round. It marked the first time since 1957 and the second time in school history two Bobcats were selected in the same NFL Draft. 

It would happen one more time – in the spring of 1976 just months before MSU’s historic run. 

“He not only could run – and he had the height – but he was a strong, physical kid,” Karnop said. “He had the strength and the presence to do that.

“He wasn’t just a guy who could catch the ball. He was a football player.”

When the McCullum family packed up their station wagon, all seven kids in tow, to move from Mississippi in the segregated south of 1967 to the Air Force radar base in Lakeside of Northwest Montana, Sam wasn’t much of a football player at all. In fact, the 6-foot-2 teenager had never played organized football one time during a nomad childhood that had included moving to eight different states. 

In Lakeside, McCullum felt like an outsider, not only because his family was one of only two black families in town but also because he did not know how to swim or ski, popular activates in the picturesque Crown of the Continent near Flathead Lake. 

“All of us, the transitioning we did from so many areas influenced us,” McCullum said. “Drinking fountains for blacks and whites only, getting in fights with people on the street for being black, people shooting guns at your house just because you are black and you have a house, that was our world before we moved to Montana. All of a sudden, you are living in a lovely place like Kalispell, Montana. People were so nice to you and you still found yourself looking over your shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

In Kalispell and on the base in Lakeside, “we had a conclave of people” from all different backgrounds. But when he would go into town in Lakeside or Kalispell, McCullum received similar acceptance.

“People did not treat me like a pariah like they did in the South,” McCullum said. “In the South, they hated you because of the color of your skin. In the North, they treated you great. Unfortunately at that time, the Native Americans were the hated population up there because of all the issues going. The Native Americans were a hated people, hated and they were everywhere. People talked bad about them the whole time. 

“There were only a few of us, only two black families in the school system there. We were a novelty and people treated us like normal people. A lot of people stayed away from us but they didn’t go out of their way to harass you. Native American people, they did and it was pretty bad.”

During McCullum’s first fall playing football as a sophomore, he broke his hand in the very first practice. He did not have transportation to and from athletics events so he would tag along with Jeff Epperly, a teammate and friend. By the time he was a senior though, McCullum was an all-state athlete who also starred as a defensive specialist on Flathead’s state championship basketball team and a standout track jumper as well. 

Colleges from across the West lobbied for McCullum’s talents. His father retired from the military in 1970 and landed the electrician job in Anaconda. McCullum’s closest brother was attending the University of Montana. Sam chose MSU so he could be close to his family. But then they moved before his redshirt year was over.

In 1971, McCullum’s sophomore year, Montana State posted a 2-7-1 record that included Holland’s lone loss to the rival Montana in 11 total matchups spread between his playing and coaching career at MSU. McCullum remembers getting together with Kollar, Ron Ueland and other standout Bobcats to talk about changing the culture into one of success. 

“The thing I learned the most was about adversity,” McCullum said. “Even being in the program I was in, I suffered a lot of abuse at people’s hands. There was a lot of racial stuff that came my way all the time. When we played against the University of Idaho, Idaho State, North Dakota, North Dakota State, schools where there were no other minorities, I got a lot of catcalls, a lot of harassment. 

“You come back to your neighborhood of people in your program and these guys were always there or me. I joined a fraternity and it was great. These guys always taught me that no matter what happens in life, you have to persevere and the people around you, your neighborhood of people is exactly where you want to be.

“Montana State always gave me that sense that no matter what happened outside of this place, this is where I find my best peace and I would always find that.”

Holland’s coaching staff is well recognized for its success during and after MSU. Erickson went on to win national championships. Joe Tiller went on to thrive at Wyoming and Purdue. Sonny Lubick was Erickson’s defensive coordinator at Miami before coaching at Colorado State, where he left as the school’s all-time leader in head coaching wins. 

Those coaches weren’t afraid to swallow their pride and bring in outside help, McCullum said. He remembers Erickson telling him he could only teach him so much, so the staff elected to bring NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry to campus for a week to work with McCullum. 

“It taught me so much about perseverance,” McCullum said. “Nothing comes easy. If you want it, you have to go get it. That’s what carried over most when I left the game.”

When he got to the NFL, McCullum was instantly surrounded by legends. He played for Bud Grant while catching passes from Fran Tarkenton. Hall of Famers like Carl Eller, Jim Marshall and Alan Page anchored Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters” defense. 

“Going to the Super Bowl was a great feeling and I thought we’d go every year,” McCullum said. “It was so easy the first time out. Playing with those guys I did in 1974 as a rookie and going to the Super Bowl, there was a tremendous amount of people on that team that were so good at what they did.”

He also experienced a reemergence of those close to him. He remembers getting his first bonus checks for winning the NFC championship and playing in the Super Bowl. 

“Before long, every relative, every friend, every guy who had bought me a beer in college wanted something from me,” McCullum said. “They wanted a ticket for the game, they wanted a loan, they wanted this, they wanted that. They all knew I made money and they knew how much because it was in the newspaper. I couldn’t say I didn’t have the money. Consequently, I ended up giving money to people I never saw again. Before long, I was broke.”

He had to move back in with his parents in Minnesota, a hard lesson for a 22-year-old that eventually changed McCullum’s life in a positive fashion. 

McCullum experienced the opposite side of the coin as one of the first members of the Seahawks. There were more than 300 players through training camp and the first season because “we never knew who was going to show up”, McCullum said. The players had their names written on tape on the front of their helmets until the 14th week of the season to remind the coaches who was who. 

“I come to the Seahawks and we are starting a new franchise, wow,” McCullum said. “And talk about frightening. It was very frightening.”

In Seattle, McCullum got his first taste as an activist promoting players’ rights. In 1982, McCullum led a pre-game handshake demonstration, planned by the NFLPA before each preseason game. This display was a league-wide gesture of solidarity in support of the Percentage of Gross Proposal and a likely strike during the regular season.

In response to the demonstration, then-Seahawks head coach Jack Patera threatened any player who participated with a hefty fine equivalent to a full regular season game check.  However, under McCullum’s leadership, the Seahawks participated in the handshake anyway.

The NFLPA asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene. Patera was forced to rescind the fine but because of the embarrassment caused by the incident led to Patera cutting McCullum before the 1982 season, sparking a return to Minnesota, where he became an active leader for his former team once the strike began that September. 

Meanwhile, the NFLPA and McCullum filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Seahawks for illegally cutting McCullum from the team because of his union activity.  After a ten-year court battle, McCullum came out victorious and received the largest back pay award in the history of the NLRB at the time.  

McCullum now serves as a trustee on the Bert Bell/Pete Rozelle NFL Player Retirement Board and has been active in the NFLPA Former Players organization since his retirement in 1983.

His primary goal has been to help fellow retirees get retirement benefits, gain access to physical, mental and dental retirement care, manage 401K and retirement plans, make sure those who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS or other physical ailments receive benefits and much more. 

“We want to make sure these guys have the help they need to cope with life outside of football,” McCullum said. “Most guys don’t understand what it’s like to transition away from something you’ve done so well for so long, a level most people don’t understand and doing back to be a regular citizen. 

“What’s it like to be a regular citizen? Most guys don’t know that because when you look at when they started, from grade school to high school to college, they were stars,” McCullum said. “They were treated special, they were given special privileges, people wanted to be around them, they had access to special things a lot of other people will never have access to. And they were given opportunities for a second or third chance most people don’t get.”

McCullum himself has embraced all the change, adversity and challenge he’s faced in his life to forge a legacy as a trailblazer. He has transitioned into a position of influence after his playing days ended and also recently sold a successful restaurant franchise in Seattle, where he’s lived since 1976. His experience at Montana State and his football roots cultivated first in the Flathead have resonated throughout his life. 

“Nothing is ever the way you want it to be,” McCullum said. “You better adjust as you go along. Life in general, we want to think everything is laid out in front of us, follow this yellow brick road and you will be fine. But business is not like that, personal business is not like that so sports as a group, you learn to work and deal with people you don’t know and some people you don’t like. And you find a way. 

“When you get together on a football team, there’s a whole bunch of personalities. Some clash, some don’t. But we always have one thing in common: we want to win. We want to find a way to be successful as a team. That’s what makes football beautiful.”

Colter Nuanez is the senior writer and co-founder of Skyline Sports (skylinesportsmt.com), an online multimedia company providing comprehensive cover of Montana, Montana State and Big Sky Conference athletics.