Raising Sam

Before a 10-year NFL career that included a trip to the 1975 Super Bowl, Sam McCullum was a teenager in Kalispell who had never played football

By Dillon Tabish
Sam McCullum. Courtesy Minnesota Vikings

Only one other Flathead High School graduate knows what it’s like to be in Brock Osweiler’s shoes at Super Bowl 50 this weekend. Only one other former Brave has reached the summit of professional football and traveled to the biggest sporting event in America.

“It’s an amazing experience,” Sam McCullum says, recalling his time at Super Bowl IX in 1975 as a kick returner and wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings.

“I’d tell (Osweiler) to enjoy the moment. It took a lot of hard work to get there. There’s a lot of clichés but it’s true in this case: enjoy the day because it may be the last time.”

Younger generations like Osweiler’s might not recognize the name Sam McCullum. But Kalispell old timers most likely remember one of the all-time greats to emerge from the grassy gridiron of old Rawson Field.

Long before he made it to the Super Bowl or caught the first touchdown in Seattle Seahawks history, before his 10-year NFL career with over 4,000 yards receiving or his Hall of Fame tenure at Montana State University, McCullum was a teenager arriving in Kalispell having never played an organized game of football.

In the summer of 1967, the McCullum family, including Sam and his six siblings, loaded into the station wagon in Mississippi and drove to Northwest Montana. McCullum’s father was a sergeant in the Air Force and was commissioned to work at the radar base in Lakeside. For young Sam and the military family, it was a familiar move; they had lived in eight different states before Sam was in high school.

But upon arriving in Lakeside, Sam felt like an outsider in an isolated place. He didn’t know how to swim or ski, two popular activities among the other kids. Living at the military base made it hard to meet new friends. And on top of all that he was an African-American in a predominantly white community in the late 1960s.

“There were some race problems. We had our share of racial issues, my brothers and I,” McCullum recalls. “We would walk into a store and people would confront you and think you’re stealing something.”

Yet at the same time, a group of local families welcomed the McCullums into the community. Sam enrolled as a sophomore at Flathead High School and was encouraged to participate in sports, which became a way to meet people and stay busy outside of school.

At 6-foot-1, he was tall, fast and athletic, but he had never really played organized sports. He had run track as a youngster bouncing around the country, but that was it. No football. No basketball.

The unknown sophomore was talked into trying out for the basketball team at Flathead, which at the time boasted a powerhouse varsity program under head coach Chuck Goligoski.

“I didn’t know how to shoot a ball. Nobody had even taught me to shoot properly. I could jump and had quickness and speed, that was about it,” McCullum says.

A group of Flathead coaches, including sophomore coach Bill Epperly, and classmates, including Dan Bain and Gary Stoick, supported the new kid and helped him learn despite his unfamiliarity on the hardwood.

“There were these coaches who always took the extra time to help,” McCullum says.

Epperly remembers driving McCullum to the Lakeside base after practices while Sam’s father was busy working.

“There was no way he could’ve participated unless somebody would take him home at night after practice because his dad couldn’t do it,” Epperly recalls.

The following year, Sam’s dad retired and the family moved into Kalispell and lived in a home on the east side. To raise their family, which grew to eight kids, his father worked at the Skyline Bowling Alley in downtown. He set up a desk downstairs where Sam would study late into the night when he wasn’t playing sports or in school.

“He was a very good role model in that respect. He preached to us a great deal about discipline and education,” McCullum says of his father. “He got his college degree in the military and my mother never finished high school growing up in the rural south.”

Sam McCullum. Courtesy Montana State University
Sam McCullum. Courtesy Montana State University

As a junior, with his confidence growing thanks to newfound success in basketball and track, McCullum decided to try football for the first time. It was a brutal introduction.

“That first practice, I didn’t know how to prepare and I broke my hand trying to tackle instead of using my shoulder,” he says.

McCullum spent the first seven weeks of the season wearing a cast. But he toughed it out and trained, learning the intricacies of the game and how to make up for his lack of experience. He became a familiar gym rat.

Then his senior year arrived.

“He really came into his own,” Epperly says.

In only one football season, he developed into one of the best players in Montana. The speedy senior earned all-state and garnered college recruiting attention from Colorado State, Washington State, Montana and Montana State.

The success transferred into the basketball season, where the Braves, led by 6-foot-11 star Brent Wilson, were a juggernaut. What McCullum lacked in offensive prowess he more than made up for on the defensive end as a shutdown guard. He was one of six seniors who led that legendary team to the 1970 Class AA state championship, beating Helena 80-63 to hoist the crown.

“He defended one half of the floor all by himself,” Epperly says of McCullum. “To this day he is the only guy I know of that made all-state basketball first team and only averaged five points per game. He was so athletic and so enthusiastic and such a great defender.”

In track, his abilities were equally awe-inspiring. He set a school record in the 440-yard dash, running 52.1 on the cinder track at Rawson Field, which is now Legends Stadium.

While excelling at athletics, McCullum also volunteered as a mentor for local youth through the Big Brother program and prepared for ROTC in college.

Seattle Seahawks' Sam McCullum catches a pass against the Raiders. Courtesy of The Daily Herald
Seattle Seahawks’ Sam McCullum catches a pass against the Raiders. Courtesy of The Daily Herald

His plans to join the military were shelved after McCullum graduated from Flathead in 1970 and attended Montana State and became a star football player under coach Dennis Erickson, who would recruit another Flathead prospect decades later as the head coach at Arizona State.

After setting a school record at Montana State with 16 career touchdown catches, McCullum was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the ninth round of the 1974 NFL draft. As a 22-year-old rookie, he made it to Super Bowl IX in New Orleans with the Vikings. The Vikes lost to Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh Steelers, 16-6. Minnesota narrowly missed out on the Super Bowl the following year, and then in 1976, McCullum went on to play for the league’s newest franchise, the Seattle Seahawks. The speedy wide receiver holds the distinction of catching the first touchdown in Seattle’s franchise history. On Oct. 17, 1976, McCullum caught a TD pass from Jim Zorn and helped Seattle win its first ever game, 13-10 over Tampa Bay. His six-year stint in Seattle was a remarkable one as he helped build the franchise. In 1980 he had a career season with 874 yards receiving and six touchdowns. He finished his career with 274 receptions for 4,017 yards and 26 touchdowns.

McCullum even served as the vice president of the NFL Player’s Association from 1982-84. In the end, he played wide receiver in the NFL for 10 seasons, splitting time between the Vikings and the Seahawks.

Only eight players from Montana State University, including McCullum, and six from the University of Montana have appeared in the Super Bowl.

Today, the 63-year-old lives in the Seattle area. He still follows sporting news in his old hometown and visits Kalispell every few years, the last being in 2010 when he was inducted into the Legends Wall of Fame. He has enjoyed following Osweiler, another former Brave who was recruited by Erickson and is the backup quarterback for the Denver Broncos in this weekend’s Super Bowl. McCullum still keeps in touch with the families and friends who welcomed him almost 50 years ago, a time in his life he remembers fondly.

“I look back on Kalispell as being the jump start of my athletic ability,” McCullum says. “Having guys like Goligoski, Epperly, these guys who were great coaches at the time who believed in me and helped me a great deal, and the people in Kalispell, people there who got to know me and treated me well. I’m very thankful.”