I KNOW THAT I am only as good as the guys I play ball with. Joe Theismann is just a name. It wouldn't have any meaning without the rest of the team . . ."

He hesitates, pondering this thought. Then, he adds, "And I really believe that."

What? Is this the new Joe Theismann. This humble, dedicated, mature, generous man. What happened to the cocky, arrogant, self-absorbed Joe Theismann we've been reading about for the ast five years since he came to Washington as the number three quarterback for the Redskins?

Joe Theismann extends his chin as though to straighten his tie, pulls at his cufflinks and smiles sweetly.

"I think I've mellowed," he says.

"I don't think Joe is arrogant or cocky," says his wife Shari. "He's just sure of himself. That gets ministerpreted."

She looks at he husband wistfully. "I wish I had his self assurance."

"Still," says Joe, "there's an old saying that if you don't blow your own horn nobody's going to blow it for you. When I was younger I did blow my own horn. I was ambitious then . . . I'm still ambitious," he says quickly. "But there is a time and a place for everything."

Joe Theismann has got religion. Finally. After all those years sitting on the bench watching Sonny, then Billy, start each game, pacing up and down on the sidelines, mentally calling his own plays, working out overtime at Redskins Park during the week, consigned to terminal obsolescene it seemed, Joe Theismann had to blow his own horn.

Now, Theismann has started both games this season. And the Redskins have won both games.

Now, Joe Theismann sits at a corner table in his restaurant "Joe Theismann's" at Bailey's Crossroads and signs autographs, accepts kudos.

Now Joe Theismann has just turned 29, he's number one.

Humility goes with the territory. Besides, Joe Theismann has not exactly been Mr. Congeniality on the bench.

He knows, and he has been told, that he really will be only as good as the guys he plays with. The guys will see to that. And Joe Theismann has caught on fast. He's singing the right tune for a change. He isn't so dumb after all. No matter what anybody says.

If he were a woman he would be a candidate for the Miss America contest. He is handsome, in a rugged way, clean-cut, well-dressed. He has flashing white teeth. He is just hip enough to be 1970s, but not enough to seem too individual or scary.

The gold chain he wears around his neck, the Britches blazer nipped in at the waist, the tousled well-shaped haircut all bespeak a modern yet inoffensive, image consciousness. His sexiness is rather antiseptic. There is nothing down and dirty about Joe Theismann. He is, as he might put it, an All American Boy. The boyish quality is one he emphasizes: "We're just a bunch of grown men out there on the field doing what every little boy wants to do."

His sense of humor is straightforward, uncomplicated, unsophisticated, and without a trace of irony.

His idea of the American Dream is living in Reston (where many of his teammates live), driving a Corvette (this year he had to give it up. The kids wouldn't fit in it) and a specially buite white El Dorado Cadillac.

Though he will tell you money doesn't buy happiness, he is on his way to making a fortune with his television appearances, advertising contracts, speeches, potential movie contrasts and his escalating salary.

He is the embodiment of the Puritan Ethic. He works hard, harder than most otherplayers. He believes in God and his family, is open, honest and very, very sincere.

There are those who point to the fact that Joe Walton, the offensive coach, is now calling the plays this year, as though Theismann weren't bright enough.

In fact he is not what you would call an intellectual, but he has got the kind of instinctive sense that will make him a survivor and the kind of mental determination that will make him a winner.

Shari (Cheryl) Theismann is 30, a year older than her husband. It bothers her a little bit. It also bothers her that some people might think her husband is just another dumb jock.

"Joe's not just a jock," she says. "He's a real person. He has a mind."

For the past five years, Joe Theismann's mind has been working overtime.

"The toughest thing for me the last four years was mentally," says Theismann. "George Allen taught me to be mentally tough, otherwise I would have thrown in the towel. I didn't think it would take as long as it did for me to get to play. It was frustrating. But I can't hold things in. I'd rant and rave. I'd punch a pillow, or punch a wall. Throw a mitt down. It makes you deal with it a little bit better. I thank my lucky stars for this lady right here."

Shari Theismann is small and pretty and rather anxious. Reticent at first, she appears eager to please her husband, to present a good side of him, his work, their family unit.

She is pregnant with their third child, an unplanned pregnancy she says, and she is drinking iced tea, fingering her glass nervously at first, then becoming easier as the interview goes along. She is the quintessential football wife.

Everything is for he r husband. And the tiny lines around her eyes seem to hint at the inner struggles she must have had with herself maintaining their relationship, bolstering up her man during the past four difficult years, keeping the family together, presenting the right face, the right image to the public.

As it is sometimes in the animal kingdom where the male creature, the peacock for instance, or the lion, is more beautiful than his female counterpart, so it is with the Theismanns. This is not to say that she isn't attractive. She is. Her platinum hair, her careful makeup, her fashionable, if not risky, clothers indicate a desire to attract, if not to compete with her husband's looks.

Yet in comparison it is Joe Theismann who stands out, professionally and personally. And she knows it. Where she is quiet and introspective, he is talkative and outgoing. Where she is clearly sensitive and emotional, he is not.

"I'm not a worrier, really," he sayd. "Shari does that. She does our half of the worrying. And I believe a woman can become much more emotionally involved in things. A man can turn it off and turn it on. You have to be able to do that."

"I'm in a position where I just want Joe to be happy," she says. "His happiness is my happiness."

And so the conversation goes. About Joe, for Joe, with Joe. Always Joe.

"All my life I've wanted to be a football player," she says. "I'm really a fan of the game. Our Monday nights are always spent in front of the TV set for instance."

Shari's smile ends in a little grimace. "So are a lot of gals," she says.

"It isn't that they hate the game," explains Joe. "It's that it takes their man away from them".

"You lose your husband the end of June," says Shari, "for camp. Then he comes home in September and you can count on your first weekend out at the end of January.

"Any young woman who is thinking about becoming a wife of a professional athlete better think twice about it," she says with her quiet strength. "It's a rude awakening. You hate to see your husband get hurt. But you just have to accept it. A lot of wives are bitter though . . ."

"I eat, sleep, live football," he says. "Shari knows. After dinner I go downstairs and watch football films. And I like the thrill of victory. I like being able to walk into a room, and have people applaud, or hear the fans cheering in the stands. I like making people happy," he says with enthusiasm.

"And yourself," she reminds gently. "It's a nicer week when you win."

Shari insists that she doesn't mind not seeing her husband all that much, that she understands, his need to travel, to work hard. "During the off season he does a lot of personal appearances. He's away a lot. But that's great because he's improving the image of Joe Theismann."

Shari was a secretary in the sports information office at Notre Dame whe she met Joe, one of the All American football players there. After she quit she became a wife and mother and makes no apologies for her role. "My sister calls me Hilda Homemaker. She's a career gal. But I'm really happy with what I'm doing. During the day I take care of the kids, play tennis, go to the health spa. Then when Joe gets home I make things nice for him."T"She does a heck of a job," preens Theismann. "As a man and a husband I like coming home to Shari. I like her to be there. We've agreed that it's important for the kids, too."

When Shari and Joe were first married eight years ag he was so busy with his football that they almost didn't get the blood tests in time. When they finally did get married, Shari had to plan the whole thing, do all the work; he insisted on going to Las Vegas fof their honeymoon.

"I love Las Vegas," enthuses Joe."When we got there at midnight on our wedding night we checked into our room and I told Shari I was going to go down to the tables for five minutes. I didn't get back until 7 a.m."

"Geez," he laughs, rolling his eyes, "I figured if I could make it through that one, I could make it through anything."

"We stayed in Las Vegas four days," sayd Shari. "That was long enough."

"I love to gamble," says her husband. "It has a certain flair."

"I have a really negative attitude about gambling," she says. "Why not give the money to charity instead of losing it?"

Yet, every year the Theismann go to Las Vegas. To gamble.

"I read," says Shari.

"Gambling is very connected to competition," says Theismann, "and I'm born and bred on competition."

"I'm the most uncompetitive person I know," says Shari.

"I can't stop it," he says. "I can't take anything in moderation."

She sighs. "It's a constant competition. He taught me how to play gin. Then beat him every game for 12 hours. We don't play gin too much any more."

Shari Theismann has only been a footballer wife for eight years. There are others she admires who are veterans of much longer careers. She cites Paula McDole, the wife of Ron McDole, as one woman to emulate, having gone through 17 seasons. "And when I think of baseball wives and hockey wives," says Shari". . . the season is the season and you essentially raise the children alone."

She and Paula McDole have agreed to give a seminar at Woodward and Lothrop later this month called "How to Survive the Football Season."

"One woman told me," says Shari, "that the only was she could get he husband's attention during the season was to dress up like a football and run through the living room."

Her best piece of advice to women who don't like the game: "Pick out one position and watch that, identify with one player."

As if never seeing one's husband wasn't hard enough on athlete's wives, there is another and potentially even worse problem.

Groupies

"People are asking me", says Theismann, "what town has the best groupies?

"A veil of earnestness lowers over his rugged face. "Well, I don't know when in the heck you have time. Besides, "sheepish now, "if there are groupies around, I don't see them."

A gasp from Shari. "Joe! You are so full of baloney. There are always women! And now that you at the beginning of a career there are going to be women and groupies. I'm going to try to keep the family intact. We'll just have to deal with it when it comes up. But I don't like to have my husband draped all over all the time. I don't like women falling all over my husband."

Her voice takes on a somber tone. She seems resigned to the fact that women will be there, determinied that it will not upset the balance of her carefully held together life, fierce in her warning that it better not.

"If somebody wants to be totally a fan, hey, that's great," she says. "If there ae other motives, well that's different."

Theismann is getting nervous about the turn in the conversation. He attempts a joke.

"She'll deck 'em," he laughs. She glares at him, kiddingly. "Well," he revises, "she'll deck me . Heh, bek.

"See.I'm a people person," says Joe. "You have guys come up and put their arms around me. People dont think anything of it."

"It's different Joe," says Shari, with mock disbelief, putting a napkin on her head and making a clown face. Then she gets serious again. "No matter what a husband doed a wife has a certain attitude. I like STRAIGHT behavior." She speaks slowly and carefully, emphasizing her words. "I don't like fooling around. JOE KNOWS."

"Joe knows," he parrots, looking a bit uncomfortable now.

"We work hard to keep our image for our children," she says.

"If we didn't have children," he starts confidently, "it might be different . . ." then lets the sentence trail off.

Shari rushes into the silence. "I don't think Joe and I have any feeling of jealously. If somebody comes up and plants a kiss on his cheek, well, it's just a fleeting thing."

To restore harmony, the new number one quarterback goes for a 50-yard touchdown pass in the last minute of the conversation. "I told Shari if it was a choice between football and her and the kids, it would be tough." His smile fades as he watches this pass hurtling out of bounds. "But," he stammers, "I think I'd choose my family."

"Maybe," says Shari Theismann.

Image is a big thing for Joe Theismann and he is certainly honest about it. "I would be lying if I said there wasn't image consciousness," he admits. "I want a young boy to say, "I want to play football like Joe Theismann when I grow up." I want somebody to recognize my ability. I want to be able to walk into a room and have people say 'great game'. Then I feel I've accomplished something."

He grew up in a middle class family in South River, N.J., and was already a star athlete when he went to Notre Dame. There, he became the team's number one quarterback. His name in those days was pronounced Theesman, but an ambitous PR man at the school persuaded him to change the pronunciation to rhyme with Heisman (as in the trophy). It didn't help; he came in second in the voting. After college he turned down a job with the Miami Dolphins, and went instead to Toronto to play with the Canadian Football League. A big fish in a small pond. When he accepted the job with the Redskins five years ago, he thought he was ready to be a big fish in a big pond.

When he was a very small boy growing up in New Jersey his father took him to the Jets football games every Sunday. In those days his idols were Johnny Unitas and Bart Star. "Then as I grew into my teens," he says, "Joe Namath was my idol. My greatest thrill was walking up to him on a football field and shaking his hand. I was completely awed. I admire him for his courage. And I like the person, too. Any male would be impressed by him. When I was growing up I thought a football player should be a playboy, go here, go there. But being married I couldn't do what Joe Namath did. You just can't do stuff like that. I have fun too. I'm a fun-loving guy. I get out sometimes with the guys. But single guys are going to be more visible. That's all. And you read more about Joe Namath's off-field activities than you do about him on field."

But there were other ways Joe Theismann could emulate his hero Joe Namath and his other heroes. And he did.

"I modified my style. I tried to throw like Joe Namath and like Ken Stabler too. I changed my face mask to look like Ken Stabler's about three years ago. I was trying to be like people I'm not. Ken Stabler wears a kind of cage over his face. But I found I couldn't see through it. So about two years ago I changed back to the single bar. I can see better for one thing. And it's not trying to be like somebody else. I have a real reason to wear a single bar. So I can see. And it's my reason. Then I started throwing like Joe Theismann. Now I feel like I am playing the kind of football I can play."

It was about two years ago that Joe made a very important decision in his life. "I decided I was going to be Joe Theismann. Not Joe Namath. I saw guys do the same things I was doing, they'd copy other people. You get more tired trying to be someone else. You put a lot more pressure on yourself trying to be someone else. There are times when I've done things that weren't totally accepted because I was trying to be somebody else."

"Today," sums up Theismann, "I feel if I can come home and be respected, then I can go out on the field and be respected. I have peace of mind. I don't have to worry about what bar I'm going to."

So what changed Joe Theismann? How did he get se mellow, so confident, so in touch with his feelings, as they say.

"I came into this city as a very heralded young man," he says. "Washington, you know, is a Notre Dame town. Then Shari and I were faced with the fact that Amy, our daughter, had to have open heart surgery."

The Theismanns have two children, a son Joey and a daughter Amy, 6. It was three years ago that Amy had surgery at Childrens Hospital, and now Shari is on the board and both Theismanns raise funds for the hospital. "That was the pivotal point in my life," says Joe. "It was three football seasons ago. Everything is determined by football seasons.

"You think you're exempt from the everyday problems because you're a quaterback," says Joe. "This thing knocked me right off the pedestal I had been building for myself."

"Joe and I are constantly under pressure," says Shari. "We are constantly being observed.

"It's difficult to operate as a unit. It's easy for Joe to say I want to be myself, I want to be Joe Theismann, but sometimes you can't. You just can't.

Still, as the two sit at the table in Joe Theismann's restaurant, people constantly coming up to Joe, it is always he they want to talk to, his autographs they want. "I'm flattered by it," he says, signing a rather alluring picture of himself in uniform. "It's a way of judging how well you're doing." And then, quickly, the refrain . . ." But I know it's not because I'm the quarterback that they want my autograph. It's because I'm a member of the Washington Redskins team. It's only because there isn't anyone else here that they're asking for my autograph." His voice sort of fades away as he finishes this sentence, the lack of credibility apparent even to him. That one won't fly. It needs work. Later he'll come up with, "The thrill of victory is what I love . . . within the unit of course . . . a quarterback is only as good as the men he plays with."

There were times when Theismann wasn't so sure he would make it to the moment when he was signing autographs, all those times he sat on the bench and waited. Those were the hardest times of his life.

"I came to the Redskins because they were a winning team and because Sonny (Jurgensen) was 36 and Billy (Kilmer) was 34. Age-wise that's not old. But in our profession it is. I was 24. I thought it would be great to have the opportunity to play under team, to learn. But after the third year I was champing at the bit. I thought, to hell with the learning process. And then, after the fourth year . . . Well, I figured I'd made my bed, I'd better lie in it. But there's a tremendous competition between the quarterbacks. I asked George Allen to trade me in '75. I woke him up at 7 a.m. and said, 'Please trade me.' He said he'd try. Then later he said it had slipped his mind. It wasn't because I didn't like the others. It was because I wanted to compete. I wanted to go out and do it."

There is definitely a division between the older members of the team and the younger ones-the older ones root for Kilmer and it's no secret among the fans that Jurgensen, Kilmer and Theismann were never the greatest of pals, the competition precludes that. But Sonny Jurgensen once told a friend that though he and Billy weren't tight to begin with, when Joe Theismann came to town, they didn't care which one of them started as long as they kept Theismann out of the game.

Now it is Theismann who is playing, Billy Klimer who sits on the bench or paces back and forth in nervous frustration, waiting for Theismann to fumble, to make a mistake.

Theismann is unmoved. "I've been in the same place," he shrugs. "I mean, I'm a human being like everybody else, but when I'm out on the field I want to do a job. Everybody asks us about our relationship. I call it workable. I don't care to expound on that."

And Theismann does not hide his dislike for former Redskins coach George Allen. "Under George it was the pressure to perform or else. People who do that do it for their own authoritarian reasons. With Pardee it's less pressurized. He says okay, get out there and do the best you possibly can. His confidence inspires my confidence."

Theismann won't say how much money he makes. In fact, he makes $135-150,000 a year, in comparison with Kilmer's $250,000. All he'll says is "There's a lot more to this game than money. Can money buy happiness? Can money buy peace of mind? he asks.

"I've always set high standards for my life. To choose a goal like the Super Bowl, to be a part of a team that accomplishes that, I can't think of anything greater in my life."

This goal, says Theismann, must be accomplished by the time he is 35 because that is his "target age" to end his football career and go on to something else. Theismann, like most football players, has spent more time thinking about what he wants to do, much time at it. It was draining his mental energy. My ability as a football player began to deteriorate." So even though he is now slowly easing his way into the media, doing Channel 7 sports spots on Monday night, co-hosting "AM Washington," doing specials (all part of a contract he has signed with WJLA), doing carpet ads, and making speeches, he insists that "football take a total precedence in my life, Shari tell you.

"I'm a TV buff," says Theismann, "Shari's reader. And that's why I'm in TV now. I'd like to wind up in the media. I don't know want to wind up saying, 'Gee, I wonder if I can get more year out of it."

At least one vestigate o his ancient crush on Joe Namath still exists.

His interest in the media and his flashy manner of dressing even got him the nickname," Hollywood Joe."

"One of our captains started calling me "Hollood" three years ago because I wear very dark glasses and when you walk into a dark room with dark glasses on it looks like a movie star. And then on top of that I did go to Hollyood."

One might not expect it but Theismann is a lot more scared of being on TV than he is of playing football. For one thing he thinks television is a lot more demanding. "When I co-hosted 'AM Washington' I had to read three books in two weeks," he says. "And I'm not really a reader. The study that want into that show! We had the son of the president of Liberia on. I spent three hours studying about Liberia. I didn't know diddly about that country. I really admire people in broadcasting. People in TV work a demanding schedule. I did that show for two weeks and I was tired. Not physically but intellectually."

He had an even more trying experience in March when he went to Hollywood to read for a role in a Starsky and Hutch episode. His Hollywood agent, Budd Moss ("he handles Sidney Poitier and a couple of other very reputable people"), set up the reading.

"Of course getting into movies is all predicated by how well you do on the football field," points out a savvy Theismann." Anyway, I've never been more nervous in my life. There were 40 or 50 guys out there reading for the same part. They give you a script. Now, how are you going to read it? Are you going to be forceful, are you going to be tough? And I'm not a reader. I read slow and my mouth moves when I read. I tell you, there's a lot more to that business than meets the eye."

Undaunted, however, Joe Theismann still plans a career in the media after he wins a coveted Super Bowl ring, leading the Redskins to victory.

"If I can really get in there and play a lot of football, things will fall in place for the rest of my life," he says.

Joe Theismann is his name. Confidence is his game.

"Every time you achieve a victory in life it becomes a habit. Winning and being successful is a habit. If whatever you touch turns to gold that becomes a habit.

"And I think fate has a bit to do with it. I'm not a Holy Roller or a religious freak but I believe somebody's got something laid out for us we dont't have anything to do with. Part of it is the faith I have in God. I'm a believer. And I believe in people, too. I don't think you can be successful if you don't . I know that I'm only as good as the guys I play ball with. Joe Theismann is just a name. It wouldn't have any meaning without the rest of the team . . ."