Has it really been 10 years? That's when the Redskins went to the Super Bowl and the last time I was confronted every day with the task of trying to decipher athletic hieroglyphics. Now that the Redskins are facing an NFC title game against the Dallas Cowboys, once again I feel left out. It's been frustrating all week.

What's a fair-weather fan to do when football fever hits town?

Now I have nothing against the game per se. It is just that football surfaces for me only when the 'Skins get like a mighty river--on such a roll that they can't be overlooked. It happened a decade ago. And it's happening again. But would somebody please explain to me what is going on?

Even all the sports stories seem to start in the middle, presuming that everybody knows everything and reads those pages weeks and days before. Maybe I'm the only one who doesn't. But when John Riggins (is he related to J. Riggings, the men's clothing store?) is quoted near the top of a story--"How many games do you play when you carry the ball 37 times for 185 yards?"--I presume that carrying the ball 37 times for 185 yards is a super feat. But precisely why?

There's a whole body of knowledge you don't have when you're a fair-weather fan. And whom do you dare ask? It's tough to get people to tell you what you need to know. I started seeking answers from what I believed was a compassionate woman, confessing my dilemma to fellow columnist Judy Mann. She suggested that I buy the same book her sportswriter husband had bought for their 7-year-old son. Something called "The Football Book." Was it just my imagination that she said this v-e-r-y slowly? I can stand not being able to join in the office football pool, but it is truly humiliating when one week you're analyzing Reagan's defense budget and the next you're reading a how-to book geared to the under-8 set.

The next person to whom I bared my ignorance was a sports-minded man I presumed would be patient since he collects toys for kids at Christmas. He turned on his heel with the promise, "I'll bring you some books."

Life actually can be made easier by football. During the play-offs, I planned my shopping trips to coincide with Redskins Afternoons because I knew the stores would be empty--everybody else in town would either be at RFK Stadium or glued to their television sets. I could bear the withering stares when I later asked some stranger the score.

But when the excitement is so overpowering that it afflicts the likes of me, true fans have a strange reaction. They see me as an interloper, a Janie-come lately. They treat me like French waiters treat Americans trying to order a meal in Paris using college-freshman French--very condescendingly. In a desperate gamble to be hip and in the know, I threw out a name during one conversation last week, only to stumble over it--after all, I'd only read it that very morning in the sports pages. This usually decent human being answered with a barely muffled snicker. In another conversation, I tried to starch my face into a look of something other than blankness during a discussion of the details of certain plays. Another usually decent human being inquired if I was suffering from a virus.

Your really good friends turn callous. A couple told me point-blank they wanted to get together with me after the big game because they would rather share the game with someone who's really into it.

I know comprehending football is a matter of focusing. I'm told it is a very straightforward game, if you can get the people who are watching it to quiet down long enough for the game to be followed. Consider it a shortcoming, but I don't want to focus on football long enough to understand it. Only when the 'Skins are on a roll. And that may not be for another decade.

So the big question now is what am I going to do today when the game is on? For the second time in 10 years, I'd really like to watch it, but I can't stand to sit for hours and not understand what is going on. I don't anticipate finding anybody to put up with such sophisticated questions as, "Now what exactly is a down?"

Maybe I'll go shopping and keep a close eye on the television section of the store. At least that way I'll avoid that withering glance when I ask somebody which team won.