As Mike Hughes walked down the streets of Laredo, Waco, Denton or any other street in central Texas last year, many of the people who cheered his exploits on the Baylor football team suddenly turned callous, and occasionally cruel.
"I didn't mind if people said I was crazy, or made a dumb decision," Hughes said today. "But the people who insinuated I couldn't take it, the ones who'd say, "Just a little too tough up there for you huh, Mike? Well, they are the ones who really bothered me."
A year ago, Hughes was the Redskins' first draft choice, a fifth-round offensive guard being counted on to help improve a line crippled the previous year by several critical injuries.
He came to Carlisle as "excited as I could be." And then, two days and three workouts later, he was gone. "I just told the coaches, packed my bags and drove away," he recalled.
"I was mentally and physically tired of football. We had a practice on Sunday, and two more Monday. And then it just hit me. I was tired of all this, thinking about football every minute of the day. I went to a meeting that night, but I wasn't paying any attention. All I could think about was, how to tell the coaches?"
Coach George Allen tried to talk him into staying that night. And when he returned home to Denton, three days later, scout Mike Allman was on the phone. A few weeks after that, Allen asked a psychologist, Bill Stroub, to try to convince Hughes to come back. It was all to no avail.
Everyone has a theory on Hughes' departure. He is a deeply religious young man and it was said he told the coaches the Lord had sent Hughes a message. Someone else said the message came by way of Dave Butz, the massive 290-pound defensive tackle Hughes was supposed to block every day.
"I have to laugh that now," Hughes said. "No, I didn't get any telegrams or telephone calls from upstairs. It was just something I had to do then.
"Yes, it was definitely a mistake. I should have stayed and stuck it out. It was a very hasty decision on my part, probably too quick, and I've had to live with the consequences of it."
One of the most signifiant consequences occurred over the next two months. Desperate for help at the position of both Hughes and guard Curtis Akins (who later came back) Allen immediately started wheeling and dealing.
He traded to obtain Ron Saul, who started at left guard most of the season. He decided to stick with the experiment of moving Terry Hermeling from left tackle to right guard, where Hermeling started all year. And toward the end of the preseason, Allen obtained Dan Nugent from Los Ange
Those moves were largely responsible for a major improvement in the offensive line. The Redskins set a team rushing record in 1976, and the line is no longer considered a problem.
Hughes is well aware of the irony in the situation, that his defection may well have been the best thing to happen to the Redskins all year. He also is aware that while his chances of making the team last July were excellent, now there is some doubt.
Hughes already has been shifted from guard back to left tackle, the position he played for most of his four years at Baylor. Even now, Pete Solverson, who spent the 1976 season on injured reserve with a bad knee, is running ahead of him in rookie camp. And when Tim Stokes, last year's starter, reports, Hughes will be even further back in the pack.
Stokes could very will be a holdout. He played out his option last year and cannot report to camp until he signs a new contract. He is represented by Los Angeles attorney Howard Slusher, also the agent for missing rookie tight end Reggie Haynes, and Allen said today he had no idea if Stokes would be a holdout or not.
Hughes, meanwhile, insists he is not concerned about his position in the pecking order, at lease not now. "If I work hard, and do my job I hope they'll be able to find a spot for me. If not. I'll go on to something else," he said.
When he left the Redskins last year, Hughes returned to Baylor, signed on as graduate assistant for the football team and finished his degree in business management. He says the decision to return to the Redskins was "a gradual process, really."
"It was a learning experience," he said. "I learned how much a part of my life football really was. I've been playing since the seventh grade, and I wanted to keep on playing."
Hughes said he finally made up his mind to tell him about his decision, but was told the coach was in a meeting. In that day's mail, Hughes received a letter from Allen, asking him to reconsider. It was a heavenly coincidence, you might say.
Today after another grueling workout in 95-degree heat. Hughes sat on a bench outside the locker room, and Allen stopped to chat, "I'm glad you came back, Mike," he told Hughes.
Later, Allen told several reporters, "Mike seems to have a lot more confidence in himself. I'm pleased he's here. He's got the ability, he's a good prospect and he wants to play."
"Right now, I'm tired as a dog," Hughes said. "But I'm staying. I know some of these guys are probably saying. "Wonder if 'ol Hughes is here to stay?" "Well I am, as long as they'll have me."