Afterward, it was all TV lights and handshakes again. He clearly looked as if he was running for office by then, in his rich blue suit and stuttering eloquence. And yet there was a small, liquid moment of emotion just before that when Teddy Kennedy seemed not so much the Midas-touched politician as just another father struggling out loud with the mysteries of a son's pain and loss. In that instant, you could see his eyes water, hear a sad scratch in his voice.

Yesterday, amid lit oils of Sonny Jurgensen and George Allen, the Touchdown Club of Washington met in its downtown headquarters for the Fourth Annual Gene Brito Achievement Award Luncheon.

The award is for physical courage in the face of handicap. It is named after a former All-Pro Redskin who contracted a strange degeneration of the muscles and spinal cord, a disease similar to that which claimed Lou Gehrig. Brito died at 39 in 1965.

Former recipients of the award are Ed Walker, blind disc jockey at WMAL, and Max Cleland, triple amputee from Vietnam who heads the Veterans Administration. Both Walker and Cleland were there yesterday. This year's recipient, Teddy Kennedy Jr., 17, couldn't make it. He got stranded in Hartford by Tropical Storm David.

So his dad stood in. For a while it looked as if the senator even might not make it. He was across town on Capitol Hill, doing the things politicians do to push bills through. He explained this once he got on the dais and had wolfed down his chicken, rice and peas. He was an hour and 15 minutes late.

What he couldn't explain very well was why his son should get cancer at age 12 and then be told, lying in a hospital bed one morinng, that his leg is coming off. That happened to Teddy Kennedy Jr. five years ago, when his cousins were out sailing and playing touch football on those lakes of lawn in Hyannisport.

The leg did come off, and today Teddy Kennedy Jr. propels a go-cart with a hand-throttle instead of a foot-pedal. He snow-skis and water-skis on specially made equipment. Yes, his father said, he's had certain advantages, but what he's mostly had is will.

"Sports have had a special meaning in our family," the elder Kennedy said. He said this looking down and holding his half-glasses in one hand. "I think my son learned young the lessons of sport and what they mean for the future challenges of life. I think Teddy understood this. At an early age, and after his amputation."

Kennedy said he recently attended the International Special Olympics in Brockport, N.Y. He quoted the Special Olympics' oath: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." He said the motto had inspired his son.

Then his voice dipped like an old record. "And Teddy has certainly inspired me."

The audience stood and applauded. Then the moment passed.

Five minutes later he was signing autographs and ducking reporters and smiling that, no, he wasn't a presidential candidate at all.