They can describe those first frightening minutes with incredibly minute detail. They recall the sickening sound - a pop, a snap, a crunch of muscle or bone, and then the agonizing pain that soon follows.

But most of all, and perhaps worst of all, they also remember the immediate and all encompassing fear that strikes terror in the hearts of all injuried professional football players. "Oh my God," they ask themselves, "will I ever play again?"

"You're just so scared," recalled Redskin offensive tackle Tim Stokes, who suffered a serious knee injury in 1975. "And it's more a fear of the unknown than anything else. You just never really know for sure if you can do it until that first game."

The process of recovering from serious football injuries is slow and often agonizing, filled with an occasional spirit-soaring high usually followed by morose periods of intense depression and pain.

"Rehabilitation is just no fun," said guard Paul Laaveg, who has missed the last two seasons because of neck and knee injuries. "First of all, it's boring, and it's a lot of hard work, and you keep asking yourself, "Is this really worth it?"

"What happen if you devote two years of your life to trying to come back, and then you can't play? You ask yourself why all the time."

Terry Hermeling, Laaveg's best friend on the team, knew precisely why he decided to attempt a comeback after his right knee was ripped apart in a routine blocking drill in the 1974 training camp.

Hermeling has been told by "three or four doctors" that he would be well-advised to give up the game. But he refused, opting for back-to-back operations that included a delicate tendon transplant in his knee.

"I just wasn't ready to stop playing," Hermeling said the other day. "For some people, it just doesn't mean that much, so they get hurt and they don't work hard at coming back. I was too young to quit. I didn't want to listen to those doctors. I had to try and see for myself."

The Redskins, to George Allen's credit, gave him the time. After a gruelling winter of weight-lifting, running and isometric exercises, Allen allowed Hermeling to work out at his own pace all during training camp.

He eventually was placed in the physically-unable-to-perform category until the week before the sixth regular-season game in 1975, when he was activated because of Stokes' injury.

"The first game they played me in I had four days of practice to get ready," he said. "They worked me really hard and after that first game, I was completely exhausted."

Hermeling was the last man out of the Cleveland locker roon that day. Long after the game had ended he sat on a stool, unable to pull the jersey off his back without help from a team equipment man. "I've never been more tired," he said. Or more relieved.

"I had gone into the game with a lot of doubts," Hermeling said. "I was worried about my straight-ahead blocking, but after doing it once, I didn't worry about it again. With every game we played, the knee got stronger, and so did my confidence."

Stokes sad a similar experience. Though his knee operation was a bit less serious - a tear of the medical collateral ligament in two places - the fears were the same.

Stokes was in a cast for nine weeks after the operation, and his weight dropped from 265 to 215 pounds because of inactivity and the ensuing loss of appetite. When the cast was removed, Stokes' leg had athrophied to half its original size.

"I started rehabilitating the knee at Redskin Park in December," he recalled. "For two months, I did flexibility excercises to work the joint out and I spent a lot of time in the whirlpool.

"Then I went back home to Eugene (Ore.) and I started with weights and some running. First I'd try and run in circles, then some figure eights, then I started playing games like racket ball. And I jogged, a lot.

"But you've got to know your limitations. If you take your time, you're much better off. You can do something stupid, like run an extra mile, and it will put you back two weeks just like that."

Laaveg agreed. "Knees are very strange," he said. "Some days it feels loose some days you think you can feel things floating in there, and some days it will just swell up on you for no reason at all.

"There are a lot of times when you start to think it will never come around. Here it's April or May, you've only got a couple months to camp, and you almost start to panic."

"Our biggest problem," said Redskin trainre Bubba Tyler, "is to get these guys to slow down. Usually they're so damned competitive they overwork themselves thinking that's the only way to do it. That's why Hermeling needed a second operation. He just re-ruptured the thing because he overdid it."

Running back Calvin Hill, who has come back from two knee operations, maintains that it is difficult to slow down because of a subtle peer pressure from colleagues and coaches.

"You are super-sensitive to what other people are thinking," Hill said. "Last year, I pulled a hamstring early in camp and I probably should have taken a few days off to let it heal. But I was so worried everybody would think it was my knee, so I stayed in practice.

"I wanted to show them there was nothing wrong. It was as if you wanted to deny that there was ever anything wrong in the first place. But you've got to avoid that. You can't worry about waht other people think, you have to let your body tell you when to slow down."

Charley Taylor, now making a successful comeback after shattering his shoulder last summer, said he, too, felt that pressure.

"You don't want people thinking you're over the hill, so you go out and do things maybe you shouldn't do," he said. "I try to block allthat other stuff out Everybody give you advice, theories on what to do. But you know what you have to do to get well.

"I'm not worried about getting hit because I know I have to hit people in this job and they're going to hit me. When the time comes, I'll do what I have to do. If it works, hey that's cool. If not, it's time to stop playing."

But that is the most painful decision of all, and many players are simply unable to accept inevitable.

Walt Sweeney, who underwent knee surgery after the final game of the 1975 season, reported to training camp last year and kept insisting he would play again. "I'll show you bastards," he would swear at reporters as he gamely tried to run laps with a knee that swelled to the size of a small balloon every night. Finally, Allen placed him on the injured reserve list, and the club slipped Sweeney into retirement last winter.

Creg Hartie put on a brave front during the first four weeks of camp this year, also insisting there was nothing wrong with his right knee. But once again, Allen and the medical staff knew better and placed him on injured reserve for the season.

Next to an operation, for a football player that is the unkindest cut of all.