Shari Theismann, soon to be ex-wife of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, knows what it's like to get sacked.

It happened last year, when she was told her marriage was over.

"I thought I was having money problems. I thought he was away from home so much because we had money problems. I was so worried. We had bought a new house. I thought he was really strung out trying to pay for it. He was gone all the time.

"I went to our accountant. In essence, he told me I was getting a divorce."

She takes a cigarette from her Gucci purse. "It knocked me back in my chair. I couldn't catch my breath."

Joe Theismann's straight-arrow image was shattered when he left his wife of 14 years for actress Cathy Lee Crosby. The result has been Washington's longest-running airing of marital linen, up there with John and Liz, or even Ted and Joan. And like any wronged spouse who goes public with her own version, Shari Theismann is casting a revisionist's eye on a once perfect marriage.

As public sweethearts, Joe and Shari had appeared together on television, at endless charity events, on commercials, in a 1978 interview (Joe: "I thank my lucky stars for this lady right here." Shari: "I'm in a position where I just want Joe to be happy. His happiness is my happiness"), not to mention the White House state dinners and Super Bowl parades.

It's been a long fall. As frightening to Shari Theismann as to a skydiver shoved from the plane too soon. But not surprisingly, the pretty, petite former homecoming queen who once fell off a parade float has landed on her feet.

She is sitting at a suburban Virginia Bob's Big Boy Formica table, eating scrambled eggs and rye toast. It's a Saturday morning and she's on her way to a workshop for divorced women, where she is the featured speaker. She wears a snug black dress, black boots, a demure string of pearls, diamond rings and a Cartier love bracelet. A full-length black mink is slung across her tiny shoulders. She is well groomed, classy, expensive. A Spa Lady. A woman of the '80s. Above all -- at the age of 36 -- she is purposefully upbeat, studiously spunky.

"I never thought for a minute my marriage wasn't . . ." She pauses and looks away, finally able to admit the charade.

It wasn't a marriage made in heaven, after all. It wasn't what everyone thought. The problems began five years ago, when she became pregnant with their third child. And while Joe channeled his energies into making speeches and public appearances, signing autographs and hitting the talk shows, she became, she says, one of the "loneliest married people" she knew.

"I have clothes. I have furs. I have all these things. But I have them alone. That is not being married."

After the Redskins won the Super Bowl, it got worse. Joe Theismann, says his wife, did 45 speaking engagements and was home approximately one month out of the entire year.

"I wanted to play ostrich. I probably knew it was in trouble, but I didn't know . . ." Smoke curls from her lips. "I look back on it and think how stupid it was. Because I wanted it to work so badly. I have three kids and I wanted my family and I loved my husband. I loved him."

She stubs out the cigarette. "I realized I had given for 15 years and gotten kicked in the face. That's when I thought, 'You've been a mouse.' "

The aftershock was an official announcement of the separation, made by the Redskins publicity office last March, without Shari Theismann's knowledge.

"I was in Florida. I didn't know the separation was going to be announced. I had no idea the Redskins were going to do that. I thought it was in poor taste. It wasn't their place to do it.

"I thought it was something we were trying to work out," she says quietly. "All of a sudden, it was announced. Joe wanted his freedom announced. He wanted to make himself look good. To be out and about, and be legally separated. He was doing what he wanted to do anyway."

Success, she says, is what soured the marriage. "I enjoyed staying home much more than being gawked at. Some people like to be gawked at. They really enjoy that. I think Joe is one of those people who enjoys a situation where he's being looked at and signing autographs.

"Maybe," she says, "I was holding him back."

Like many disposable celebrity spouses, Shari Theismann has passed through the painful period of nonpersonhood. The invitations that dropped off, the friends who stopped calling. "I'm the ex-wife," she says ruefully. But that's old news. She has already received a generous property settlement and custody of the children. On March 7 she expects her husband to file for divorce under Virginia's no-fault, 12-month-separation statute. She is anxious to sell her McLean house (just reduced from $695,000 to $650,000) and move back to Chicago, where she hopes to pursue a career in television. She has already received the proceeds from the sale of the couple's Fort Lauderdale condo.

Her husband, on the other hand, has recently bought a 20-acre farm in Stumpstown, outside Leesburg, where Crosby is a frequent visitor. "That's what my children say. I haven't seen it." She and Joe, she says, are not on speaking terms. They communicate through lawyers. (Joe Theismann, through a spokesman, last week declined to comment on the divorce or his plans for the future.)

On Jan. 16, Crosby told a reporter that she and Theismann had proposed marriage. Shari Theismann heard the news in Chicago, where she had gone to talk with WLS, the ABC-affiliated station, about a possible on-air job.

Her reaction, she says, was "not shock. My divorce will be final in March. After that, he's free to do what he wants. Crosby is making all the announcements. They've made their lives pretty public. They've been pretty brazen about their relationship. The emotional devastation is behind me."

Shari Theismann is worried about her children. She makes a special point of saying that two of them are getting professional help to deal with the divorce. "She has basically gritted her teeth," says her divorce lawyer, Glenn Lewis. "It's been a difficult year for the kids. She's a strong woman."

The initial anger over the public humiliation has softened into a resigned sadness and hope for a new life, and she is able to speak candidly -- if one-sidedly -- of her marriage and divorce.

"You know what really bothered me? Last year, I gave him all the love I could. Even though our marriage was falling apart. I asked for my NFC championship ring and he wouldn't get it for me. Neither would Mr. Jack Kent Cooke. I don't know where it is, but I still want it. I earned it. I was a Redskin just like everybody else. That hurt me more than anything."

She manages to find a few kind words for her husband, nicknamed "Jawin' Joe" and described by sports columnists as "brassy as a truckload of trombones," a man who "never met a microphone he didn't like." But her generosity is mostly confined to his performance on the field.

She has a few unflattering words, too: "immature," "insensitive," "callous," "weird." "I really feel that Joe has embarrassed people in Washington. Because he carried on so blatantly, front and center."

Nevertheless, she says she is concerned about speaking out but not enough to stay silent. She appeared on "The Larry King Show" recently and was criticized for going public. She posed for Washingtonian, half-smiling as she tore her husband's picture in half on the hottest selling cover in the history of the magazine, and was perceived as the stereotypical wounded wife with vinegar in her veins. She received letters from football fans asking how she could possibly break up Washington's first football couple. People, she says, wanted to believe she was responsible. She just wants the world to know she wasn't. "I was shocked. It was my fault! I had hurt their quarterback! Never! It was the furthest thing from my mind.

"I don't want people to think I'm using the media as a means to be bitchy and vengeful," she says over the course of two separate interviews in which she offered some parting shots at Washingtonians who still believe her husband is some kind of hero.

* On Joe Theismann: "I saw him on a television interview, saying that in a relationship, you have to give 100 percent. Joe was not a giver. Not in our marriage."

* On his mouth: "I always told him to choose his words. To put his mind in gear before he opened his mouth. I used to say, 'Please don't talk.' "

* On his impulsiveness: "When we left Canada, we had $450, two kids, no team to go to. Joe went across the street and spent $450 on a camera and projector."

* On his mother: "I don't know if she's pleased that the marriage fell apart. I think she can sit back and say, 'I told you so.' "

* On moving to Chicago: "It will be nice. They have the Bears."

* On the Redskins' playoff loss to the Bears: "I thought, 'Every dog has his day. Maybe I'm having mine now.' To see them stumbling around like that in the last eight seconds, it was embarrassing."

* On Joe Theismann's Hollywood pursuit: "Joe was totally taken up with them. Burt Reynolds and that crowd. He thought they were just the cream. I don't know why he needs that. Insecurity, I guess."

* On celebrities shedding Wife No. 1: "They want to let go of all the bad stuff. They don't want to be reminded of when they weren't a success."

* On Joe's new romance: "He says he's deeply in love. Sorry, you don't fall out of love and in love that fast."

* On Cathy Lee Crosby: "Would you want her to bounce your kids on her knee?"

* On forgiveness: "Somebody said to me, 'Wish him well. So the two of you didn't make it. It wasn't meant to be.' I'll look at it that way someday. I can't yet."

She sips her coffee. "So many people said, 'You're so better off. How did you stand him?' I don't know. Maybe I'm a masochist."

And the only way to disappoint a masochist, the saying goes, is to stop hurting him.

She laughs. "You know, I think you're right." Where's the Beef?

The house is large and modern, a pseudo-chateau nestled in the woods of McLean. There's a swimming pool, plus a set of swings on the side lawn. It stands on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac where two other suburban dwellings have "For Sale" signs.

"A lot of divorces," Shari Theismann laughs, sitting in her sunny kitchen. She wears black leather jeans, a black and purple polka-dot sweater and chunky black earrings. Blondie, the family's cocker spaniel puppy, is playing on the floor. There's a big wooden bowl of popcorn on the table and packages of nonnutritious snack cakes on the counter. She rolls her eyes and mutters something about where there are kids, there's junk food. A vacuum cleaner, wielded by an unseen housekeeper, hums from the second floor.

There are few signs of Joe Theismann's ghost. No pictures. No memorabilia. Only a wooden planter in the kitchen corner, painted with a Redskin helmet.

Amy, her 12-year-old daughter, is home with a cold. She watches television on the wide screen in the den. Joey Jr., 13, is away at Fork Union Military Academy outside Charlottesville. Patrick, 6, is at school. After her separation was announced, Shari Theismann took a job with a Washington public relations firm, but has not been to the office since Dec. 1. She decided to stay home, she says, to be with Amy and Patrick.

She is asked to tell the story about the steaks.

"It's not funny at all," she says, eyes twinkling, trying to suppress a grin. "Joe does an endorsement for a meat company. And we had separated, but I was still getting six boxes of meat a month. Now, do I look like I eat six boxes of meat a month? Primarily, it was for the kids. The kids have a lot of friends, and they're always over. My dinner table is always filled.

"I didn't think it would stop coming. I was having a dinner party with friends. It was the first one I really attempted alone. I wanted to have a cookout and have steaks. So I called the meat company and said, 'When you bring the shipment this month, could I get some steaks?' They said, 'I'm sorry, you can't have the meat anymore.' I said, 'What? I can't have what?' 'You can't have the meat anymore.'

"Joe was living in an apartment. I thought, 'What does he need six boxes of meat a month for when I've got three kids!' He cut off all the meat. I wasn't supposed to get any."

The company told her the meat was being sent to California.

"I guess Cathy Lee supports a drug rehabilitation center. He was sending the meat out to this group. Instead of my children! It was the principle of the thing," she says heatedly. "I think it's wonderful to support these things, but don't send them meat that's supposed to go to my children!

"I went into a rage. I phoned him. I said, 'I want that meat for my children. I haven't raged about anything, except this meat!' "

She says her husband agreed to cut the California shipment to four boxes per month, sending the remaining two boxes to McLean. There's no question that Shari Theismann can afford to buy filet mignon. But it was the principle.

"I thought, 'How dare you send this to strangers when my children could eat this meat.' " The Beginning

She was born Cheryl Brown and grew up on a farm in Michigan. After high school, where she really was the homecoming queen, and really did fall off the float ("It wasn't my fault. The thing turned the corner, and I fell off!"), she went to junior college, then business school in Chicago.

"Totally devastated" by a failed romance, she ventured down to South Bend, Ind., and got a job as a secretary in Notre Dame's public affairs office. There, in 1969, she met a brash young football player who had changed the pronunciation of his name from Theesmann to Theismann, to rhyme with Heisman. As in trophy.

Joe Theismann described their meeting in a 1978 Washington Post interview. He was in his room studying, and all the guys kept coming in, talking about the new secretary in the publicity office. "So I took a walk over to see, and I liked what I saw -- platinum blond, petite, maybe 5-foot-3. A really dynamite-looking girl."

The next day, he came back to get a publicity picture of himself, saying he needed it to send to a fan. He kept coming back every day for more publicity pictures until even his future wife and biggest supporter doubted he had so many fans.

They were married in his senior year of college, Dec. 5, 1970, at Notre Dame. She planned the wedding. She says his parents were against the marriage. "His mother really didn't want us to get married. Probably we were too young."

He was 21, she was 22. They honeymooned in Las Vegas. They checked into the hotel room at midnight. The groom told his bride he was going down to the tables for five minutes. He came back seven hours later.

After college, Joe Theismann -- who did not win the Heisman Trophy -- turned down a job with the Miami Dolphins and went to Toronto to play in the Canadian Football League. Frankly, Shari Theismann says, their years in Canada were "miserable."

"I'm gonna be better off now," she says today. "Because I don't have to come down with him. I came down with him before."

Their first child, Joey Jr., was born on his father's birthday, Sept. 9, 1971. Two years later they moved to Washington, where Joe Theismann waited for Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer to retire. It was a long wait. He spent season after season grousing to the press and won a reputation as an egomaniac, endearing himself neither to the fans nor to his fellow football players.

"I think they now all realize and are sensitive to his need for the microphones and cameras," Shari Theismann says. "Perhaps when we first came here, that was a bone of contention. That Joe was so willing to talk. He hurt himself so many times. It was unintentional."

By the time Joe Theismann finally got to play, the family was living in Reston, a Corvette in the driveway. Success was in the air as Joe led the team to two NFC championships, and Shari Theismann was the perfect football wife, dragging the ice bags to bed to numb sore knees, watching the defensive films, going to all the games, sitting in the stands with the other wives, looking pretty and bubbly as a cheerleader.

"I did what I thought was right. I did what I knew I could do. I gave as much as I could give. I think probably the one thing I didn't do was go on the road enough. I probably did stay home too much. I didn't travel enough with Joe. I think a lot of wives do it, maybe out of fear. I never feared. Because I judge other people by myself. I would never go away and fool around. I trusted him. To the limit. I always thought Joe was so solid in our family."

At the same time as the success came problems. In 1976 Amy had open heart surgery at Children's Hospital. But it was the 1983 Super Bowl win that changed life so dramatically for the Theismanns.

"That's when he started on his 'Make hay while the sun shines.' I'll never forget that phrase for as long as I live. For those who do, I hope they keep their priorities in line. While you're making hay, remember how you got there."

Her husband, she says, embarked on a marathon self-promotional campaign, doing speeches, talk shows, commercials, a film with Burt Reynolds ("Cannonball Run II"), all in addition to running his Northern Virginia restaurant and publishing his Redskins Report newsletter. One columnist reported that he had four agents.

"Absence does not make the heart grow fonder," Shari Theismann says emotionally. "It builds a bit of an abyss there. You can't cross it sometimes. But again, I couldn't be gone all the time. There are three people here. We have a great housekeeper, she's wonderful, but she's not their mother. I'm their mother.

"I was torn," she says.

If she had joined him on his trips to Hollywood, "I don't know. Maybe it would have held on longer. I enjoyed the people we were around, Burt Reynolds and all that crew, but Joe was just taken up with it. I enjoyed them for what they were, but their life style wasn't what I wanted. Although they were very nice to me. Always.

"I don't think I ever lost sight of the fact that I wanted to be what I was. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a wife. I wanted to do community service. I wanted to be a big part of everybody's life."

But perhaps her homebody image didn't fit in with her husband's new crowd.

"I'm sure that didn't hold water with them.

"I did start hanging around with them. I worried about it probably more than I would like to admit. Then again, how do you tell an adult who he can have as his friends?"

Was he happy with her?

"Gosh. Now, I don't know. I thought we were. Maybe I was the one who was so happy and so filled with what I wanted to do. I was doing it. Maybe I didn't see his unhappiness. Maybe we lost that communication. At one point, Joe and I were really best friends.

"In fact, one of my friends called me after the separation. We used to spend a lot of time with her and her husband before success and everything. She said, 'You know, I used to envy you so much when you guys were on the beach. You held hands and talked endlessly.' She said, 'What happened?' I said, 'I don't know.' "

When her husband first left, she says, "We couldn't find him. He never had the nerve or the strength to tell the kids. We never sat down together. The children cried all week. That Thursday I called my attorney and I said, 'I don't care where he is, but you get hold of his attorney and you have him phone his children.' "

She says she misses the football games, misses the other wives, whom she has deliberately stayed away from this season, not wanting them to see her pain. She says she got a call recently from one who said, " 'The biggest thing you did was keep us together, keep our heads straight. That feeling wasn't there this year.' When we went to the Super Bowl that year, I knew we were going. We loved each other. That feeling was there." She shrugs. "It wasn't there this year."

This year Cathy Lee Crosby sat in the owner's box.

"That hurt," Shari Theismann says.

She lights a cigarette and closes the door to the TV room. Now that her husband has found a celebrity partner, she says, "they'll probably flourish from one another's successes. Whether they'll stay that way, I don't know. I don't know anything about her. It's better for me that way."

A friend did bring over a magazine, One Woman, featuring Cathy Lee Crosby in suggestive poses. Shari Theismann bristles.

"I'm trying to raise three children with standards, morals, priorities. How do I tell Amy it's not the proper thing to do, to appear like that in a magazine, when in fact their father is with someone who does that?

"It's very difficult for me right now. The children said she's very nice to them. I can't imagine her being cruel to them. They're sweet children. They don't really have any feelings for her too much, I don't think, except she's nice to them."

After Amy learned that her father and Crosby might marry, Shari Theismann telephoned her daughter to ask if she was hurt.

"She said, 'Mom, nothing will hurt me anymore.'

"I don't know what Joe wants. I just want him to be good to the children. He can't fulfil them completely, because you cannot be a Wednesday and every-other-weekend father.

"He says he's very happy. If he's very happy, good for him.

"I don't know what happened to Joe. I hope at some point in time he wakes up and says, 'Oh my God, why did I do it?' " Divorce, Hers

The church basement is filled with folding chairs. Women, older and younger, sit on the chairs listening intently as Shari Theismann describes her experiences. There is laughter, and some sisterly tittering, but the topic is a serious one. How do women who grew up wanting to try new recipes cope with the wrenching reality of life on their own?

"Divorce is something I didn't want," she says. "Divorce is something I'm going through and divorce is something I'm dealing with. To talk about it publicly is an easement for me."

The women listen for two hours as she guides a panel of psychologists and lawyers through their presentations. There is a question-and-answer period at the end. One woman says, "I don't want my children to worship Joe Theismann as a hero. It's very difficult for me to tell them that he has done the same thing his father has done. He's not a hero."

Shari Theismann gallantly defends her husband's position as a pro football star, saying he is one of the better players ever to come along. But, she says, "This is what it boils down to -- he made a commitment he couldn't hold up. He made a commitment to a game and he could do that. I don't know what that says about a person, where their priorities are."

When it's over, a young woman walks up to her and says, "Mrs. Theismann, when does it stop hurting?" The End

Shari Theismann sits at her kitchen table, smoking.

She is looking forward to moving to Chicago, she says. It will be easier for her there. She will no longer be the ex-wife of the quarterback. Some people may never have even heard of Joe Theismann.

She is dating, and worries sometimes that men may be intimidated by her or, worse, may only want to see her so they can boast of having dated Joe Theismann's wife. "I think that's been my biggest fear," she says.

There's also the man in Chicago, her first love. He's now divorced, "very wealthy," and the two have gotten together a few times. Her eyes sparkle. Yes, she says, she had thought of him during her marriage to Joe.

Would she marry a celebrity again?

"I'd like to find someone a little more stable, someone to share a life with," she says. "Maybe a celebrity in his own right."

She says she feels sorry for her husband. She thinks he missed out on a lot. "The joy of sitting in the bleachers and watching your son pitch in an all-star game. Those are the things you put in your memory bank. Or Amy's dancing recital. Things that Joe didn't make. I really feel badly for him because he can't put those things away. These are the priorities. The tangible things you want to grab on to."

Shari Theismann's father died two years ago in a violent automobile accident. It was a stressful time, she says, when she needed her husband's comfort.

"Joe was very insensitive when this happened. It was a time, I think, when he just wanted to be gone. The marriage was not going well. There were a lot of problems surrounding my father's death, papers and insurance and things like that."

She flew to Chicago to be with her mother. "Joe spent one day with me. One day. He had filmed a commercial the day before at Notre Dame. The next day he was going to fly to Los Angeles to film a commercial. I took him to the airport, and he was walking down the ramp so fast. I remember saying, 'Well, I guess you don't need me to see you off at the gate.' He went" -- she stabs the air with her upturned thumb -- " 'Be tough, Shar.'

"I will never forget that. If I start to soften at all, I picture him saying, 'Be tough, Shar.' I needed him, probably more than when I delivered my children, or went through anything. He could have canceled that trip to California. He could have been there for me one time and he wasn't."

Her brown eyes flash, more in determination than anger. "When you ask me how I feel, I envision that scene. I will be tough."