It had started even before Sam Legard and the ribs arrived, this scent of something special: from the guy dressed shoulder-to-pants cuff in buttons . . . the little boy racing on crutches in the lobby to see a Hog . . . the high-school band not quite getting "Hail to the Redskins" right during a Friday serenade . . . John Riggins in top hat, tails and cane.

You drift about sport nearly half a lifetime and one game melts into the next. Entire seasons get foggy now and then. Once in a great while come scenes such as those this week, and why you can't kick this frivolous habit clicks into focus once more. What is more compelling than unique people being themselves?

At the core, stripped of its hype, the Super Bowl is the largest high-school football championship in America. And that's about as good as sport gets, for each city for a few days returns to its tiny-community roots once again and goes daffy over a common tie that means nothing and everything.

Why would a small-time rib slinger be obsessed with driving an entire continent to make sure a childish tradition stays unbroken? The publicity was nice. But Legard had been with his team most other weeks and thought the trivial matter of 3,300 miles made this one no different.

Legard had to be here, and lots of people along the way who knew why made that possible. He is the Fat Lady of the '80s. What wafted for blocks near the Redskins' hotel was much more than the aroma of ribs. Inside, Jack Kent Cooke was cooking up something nearly as fine.

Cooke is an egocentric, aging preppie who has driven some of the Redskins' nonplaying and noncoaching staff beyond the bounds of decency nearly the entire week. Part of the frenzy was in arranging a relatively impromptu party for several hundred that many in the organization had to alter long-standing commitments to attend.

Darned if everyone didn't have a grand time after all.

Riggins was the main reason.

Cooke got them together, made his harried staff realize that if it pushed itself with the same single-minded zest and teamwork the players and coaches have shown, wondrous feats also were possible off the field. Riggins made a party an event.

He is the only Redskin with a genuine sense of presence, the only player who could get away with what he did without being thought tacky. He's maybe the only athlete making $300,000 a year who would rather drink beer with the man who cleans his uniform than the one who pays his salary.

Few expected Riggins to attend. When he did, in top hat and tails instead of the shorts and hiking boots he'd worn most of the week, the message was obvious: he cares deeply about this team at this moment. Doesn't every high-school bash include an elegant entrance from its hero?

Riggins once threw back his head and yelled: "Let the show begin."

Finally.

The feeling here is that the Redskins are a far better team than most of the country realizes, and that they are going to end this enchanting season with Washington's first NFL championship since 1942. Oh, 23-20 seems about right. It could be more if Riggins gets rolling. That won't happen as quickly as it has in recent playoff victories.

Probably, the Redskins' fate this week depends more on Joe Theismann than Riggins. The Dolphins surely will find a way to stop the most basic play in football: fullback inside the tackles. A team that once featured Larry Csonka still ought to have some anti-tank devices on hand.

Theismann very likely is going to have to force the first defensive crack this game. The Dolphins have beaten some very good teams in the playoffs, but none that could pass and run as well as the Redskins. The key matchup is Washington's receivers against Miami's defensive backs.

The Dolphins' Killer Bees have been extraordinarily effective against some of the swiftest and most clever catchers the game has produced. If Wes Chandler, Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner, Wesley Walker and Lam Jones are almost totally shut out, what hope is there for the Smurfs?

Also, Miami's linebackers are the most versatile in football, equally adept at covering backs downfield and burying quarterbacks behind the line.

Theismann has pointed his entire athletic life toward this game, toward being able to overcome just such a disadvantage, so he can flick off the final critic who sees him as a mouthy hotshot who crumbles under immense pressure. He's gotten everything except what he covets most: respect.

Lately, he has been the best quarterback in the league.

On the other side of the line, Washington's defense has been very good against offenses far better than Miami's. When the Dolphins have run and passed with abandon in the playoffs, they have done so largely against Chargers and Patriots who think of tackles only as fishing equipment.

Sorry, but David Woodley and Andra Franklin aren't Danny Whitegeboom and Tony Dorsett.

That the Redskins and Dolphins have gotten here suggests the NFL did have at least a small strain of luck this sad season. Washington clearly is the NFC's best team; Shula and the Dolphins are the AFC's most appealing attraction.

The fact that both teams stayed together during the eight-week strike was significant in their staying so successful after it. Still, the most vocal anti-unionist was a Dolphin, Bob Kuechenberg.

During the Redskins' final practice here, a bolt of inspiration struck Theismann. That came an instant after what looked mighty like a wasp had landed on his pants and guard Fred Dean swatted it away. No Killer Bee, to be sure, but Theismann will take every omen he can get.