IT'S SUNDAY AFTERNOON. A chilly rain is falling. About 12,000 of us are huddled in a football stadium that holds more than four times that many. We trade wet dollar bills for warm beers. A wise guy in the stands has a paper bag over his head, two eyeholes cut out in front. Around him sits a crowd sporting buttons that say, "ANYBODY can love a WINNER."

Cynics call us masochists. What we really are is a cult that worships a good football team that happens to be on a temporary but rather long losing streak. We are hard-core Washington Federals' fans -- slightly mildewed but still proud. Over the past four months, we have shared some of football's worst moments.

Anybody can be a Redskins' fan. Most of us are. I myself spent much of the NFL playoff season clutching a teddy bear named Mark Moseley. But to be a Federals' fan -- that takes something special. We rally behind the word "almost." Anything short of a blowout is a victory to us. Our coach is referred to as "Disappointed Ray Jauch" so often many think Ray is his middle name.

We remaining stalwart boosters of the heartbreak kids begin a typical game day looking at the sky. It's 50 degrees with a 25 mph wind in pouring rain. We head to the stadium. There, we all help each other push our cars around the mudhole parking lot. No fur coats, Mercedes, gold chains or high-heeled boots. We look like refugee backpackers.

Somebody has got to love this team. So once inside the stadium we come to life behind our guys. We do this while studying the program to figure out who our guys are. It's not easy, since so many players change each week. And of course they all look alike when covered with mud. We sympathize with the quarterback's frequent confusion. But first we figure out who the quarterback is.

It's hard for a few thousand folks sitting in a rain-drenched bowl to make a lot of noise. But listen to the roar that follows a Federals' touchdown! If there are no touchdowns, we'll give a lesser roar for a first down. Even a pretty decent roar for a completed pass. On a bad day we can muster sort of a quiet roar if the team just doesn't fumble on the play. We'd be even louder if the umbrellas didn't muffle the sound.

The truth is our team is not doing very well. We have only won one game and we've lost 12. But you have to love this team that tries so hard and has almost won so many of the games it's lost. We remember almost winning last Sunday when an upstart, never-heard-of-before, just- signed place kicker for the New Jersey Generals sent a 50-yard field goal through the uprights with no time on the clock and we lost. Many of our players just lay down in the mud. One was comforted by a General. It turned out he was a General who had been a Federal until last month, when he went from the worst to the second-worst team in the league.

We all remember listening to the Oakland game that started at 11 p.m., our time. Afraid to go to bed because we were almost winning, we noted it was 2:35 a.m. when we came up 6 inches short of the tying touchdown at the end. Such is the weekly drama of a Federals' game.

We know we have made a lot of mistakes. We in effect sacked our own quarterback in one game, and in a couple of others our pass defenders collided and wound up lying side by side on the field like a pair of semi- conscious bookends.

The poor Feds have suffered shattered bones, ripped muscles, dislocations and tropical disease. In one game quarterback Joe Cilliam threw a brilliant pass while in such pain it looked like it might be the last thing he ever did. Craig James is playing after suffering what was essentially a broken back. Nigerian Obed Ariri played with malaria. Then we recall when quarterback Mike Hohensee, recovered from a broken sternum and serious influenza, suffered an appendicitis attact just before the national athem. He came back the next week and we almost won.

We remaining fans are likewise sturdy. Gone are the leftover Redskins' boosters. They noticed the difference. The ever-present monsoons have culled out the sunshine partiots. (It has rained hard during every home game but the Brimingham game May 1, when we lost 35-3 under sunny skies.) The diehards left at RFK are serious Federals' fans who already have favorite players and homemade chants. A few games back some players actually had to turn to the stands and ask for quiet so they could hear the quarterback call the play. When our guy gets hit, a collective "ugh" rises from our throats. When one of our guys does something good, we're not only thrilled to roaring, we are all so very grateful.

It has been tough for us fans, but it's getting better. At the opening game we brought a home-made pompon created with crepe paper (green amd black, we had the colors wrong) on an old mop handle. Now just 14 weeks later we can buy officially- sanctioned genuine-trademark legally-green-and-white Washington Federals coffee mugs, seat cushions, running shorts, handbags and cigarette lighters. This is a league that even has an official cheese -- Emmentaler Premium Swiss.

Now all this leads to the fact that there is a key ingredient to the makeup of a Federals' fan. We all know what it is, but we don't talk about it. It comes from deep in our pasts, and it hits us every game day: Each and every one of us was the 27th kid chosen to join the team at recess. I personally know the pain of making a basket for the opposing team. Federals' fans are yesterday's kids who ran the wrong way, forgot to tag up but then missed the plate anyway, or skated into the puck as it was sailing towards their goal.

So now we love to see a balding defensive end pounce for the sack. Or watch a baby-faced rookie kick his first professional point. The game is never dull. Stand in line for french fries and the ball will change hands three times. That's entertainment. It is also suspense. In this league, a 17- yard field goal attempt is no fait accompli. It's not terribly important who has the ball, since interceptions and fumbles are so commonplace that either team has just about as good a chance of scoring on any given play.

We fans accept that this is no lean and mean machine. We think the Feds are more like a taken-apart old Porsche lying around the garage floor. Most of the parts are real good. Some need work. But if it ever all gets going at the same time, nothing's going to beat it.

And a few of us are going to remember when.