"Once I was a football player," said Errol Mann, smiling. That was long ago, before he entered the National Football League, before he became a Denver Bronco, a Cleveland Brown, a Green Bay Packer, a Detroit Lion and an Oakland Raider.He is what is referred to in the trade as a grizzled veteran and of all his sporting travels this season, the one stop he did not plan on was the Super Bowl.

Mann's thick, well-worn right leg is in position to help kick the choke label off the Raiders' collective back Sunday, and how the leg arrived there involves circumstances only men such as he can fathom, let alone endure. It began with him literally kicking the lights out late at night in North Dakota, and received a helpful boost, ironically, after an important missed kick this season against his Super Bowl 11 opposition, the Vikings.

At the time, that missed extra point for the Lions in a 10-9 loss to Minnesota the third week of the regular season seemed the worst moment in a career dotted with disappointment. Even though the fault was more with the holder then with himself, Mann cried openly after the game, turning his head at one point and saying to newsmen: "I'm sorry, gentlement." He knew his games with the Lions were numbered, and they were; he did not know it would lead to a potential $25,000 windfall.

"Detroit released me after the sixth game," he said, "and, yes, I thought a lot about my career being over. Hell, I had a 1,000-mile drive to think about it. Then the Packers called when I got home and offered me a conditional deal the next week if Chester Marcol couldn't kick against the Raiders in Oakland.

"I went with them, but as it turned out Marcol could kick. But after I went back with the Packers, and then home (to Battle Lake, Minn.) the Raiders were on the phone. They'd liked what they saw of me during warmups and wanted to give me a chance to replace (the injured) Fred Steinfort."

Mann asked just one question of Al Davis: would this be "muscial kickers," a tryout or would he get an honest chance? Davis said Mann was his man, and he arrived in Oakland on a Wednesday, introduced himself to his older holder and his snapper on Thursday and kicked two field goals three days later against the Broncos. He also missed an extra point.

In truth, Mann is not on the firmest ground with the Raiders, having missed seven of 11 field goal tries during the season. He was successful in his only attempts of the playoffs, from 40 and 39 yards, and offers a shrug when asked for opinions of Sunday's affair. Placekickers do not look ahead.

"When you look back in this business," he said of his nine years in the NFL, "it's fantastic the number of little things that determine your career. If this guy or that guy had held his job with the organization, how things would have worked out for you. But the breaks I've gotten this year have been fantastic."

When he was a football player instead of a football kicker, Mann was a running back in Campbell, Minn., and the University of North Dakota. He was slow enough and immobile enough to devote uninterrupted time to place-kicking by his junior year in college and determined not to spoil his only chance at a pro football career.

"I'd sneak into the fieldhouse at night and kick," he said, "because the athletic director would kick me out every time he'd see me practicing during regular hours. I kept knocking out light bulbs."

With his first job, with the Broncos, Mann became a minor footnote in history, the kicker on the first AFL team to beat an NFL team. The Broncos beat the Lions, 13-7, in an exhibition and Mann kicked two field goals and an extra point.

Later, a thigh injury suffered during a kickoff caused him to be released by the Broncos, whose team physician told him he never would kick to NFL standards again. After an operation, he was released by the Browns during training camp of 1968 and later by the Packers after two games. Then he spent seven solid seasons with the Lions.

Still, all was not glowing. His holder and snapper would change all too often, and any threesome that cannot execute its chores in 1.4 seconds conspires to produce a blocked kick.

If Mann is typical of Kickers, living on the whims of the next coach and the hands and eyes of inexperienced snappers and holders, his opposite number Sunday, Fred Cox, is not. He, holder Paul Krause and the snapper until this season, Mick Tingelhoff, have grown ancient together.

"Fran (Tarkenton) held for me the first years," Cox said. "Then there was a period, after he got traded to New York, where we used several different holders, and if you check my records you'll find those were my worst years. Then Krause came along, and we clicked immediately. He was a natural.

"In 10 years, he's dropped only two balls on me, and those were in the same game, against Pittsburgh in '71 or '72."

Having played against the Vikings for so long, Mann realizes their excellence on special teams (15 blocked kicks this season alone) is no special mystery.

"They simply play hard for 60 minutes," he said. "Usually, punts and field goals, special-team work, is when a team gets sloppy. They don't. And they don't do anything fancy. You look at films of their kickoff team of four years ago and they're doing the same stuff they're doing this year. They just work harder than most teams."

Whether it is the security of being with the same team for 14 years or simply being a candid fellow by nature. Cox does not believe Sunday's affair will come down to his leg or Mann's in the final moments.

"That doesn't mean I won't be ready," he said. "But I've just got a feeling. I think ther'll be points scored, but I don't think it'll come down to a field goal or an extra point at the gun."