Rusty Tillman is fond of saying: "Special teamers never die. They just" - and then he makes a grand gesture with his hand, as though drawing a curtain - "fade away." And they do. There comes a time in the brief football life of all but the most-special special teamer when something literally snaps.

Not in the mind, although it is said something there must have snapped for the fellow to run under kicks in the first place. Most likely, it is a ligament or cartilage, possibly a major bone - and a once-vigorous "R-2," never could quite recall his name, limps off into insurance or sportscasting.

The history of special team is short. Stagg and Rockne and Lombardi recognized them, but not as anything special. Unlike most coaches, Paul Brown in the early '50s used his best players in what was then called "the kicking game" because, he reasoned, they were being paid a handsome wage and ought to earn every cent.

"I remember the first pro game I ever saw," said Paul Lanham, coach of the Redskin special teams. "It was the day Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns for the Bears (Dec. 12, 1965), but what also stands out is the way J. C. Caroline, who was getting old, got down on kickoffs - and how the crowd really loved it when he did."

A largely anonymous assistant coach for the Bears - George Allen - also was on hand that day. He may have had something to do with Caroline's - and the crowd's - vigor. Later, he did make special teams special - and now Rusty Tillman is the first of the breed to make a career out of acting like a well-controlled bowling ball crashing into the 1-3 pocket of humans known as "the wedge."

Tillman is ending his eighth year of busting wedges, clobbering punt returners, making sure Mike Bragg has time to execute his well-placed punts, and escorting such as Eddie Brown through angry mobs of Bears and Patriots.

"I'm proud of what I've done," he said, "but I hate for it to come out like, well, you know. Let 'em talk about me when I'm gone. Let 'em put me in the Special Team Hall of Fame." Then he lapsed into his George Jessel imitation.

In truth, Tillman can be as serious and sensitive as any human, a man who does not relish battering someone else's body - or his own. And there still is a flicker of hope that some year, perhaps somewhere else, somebody will allow him to play middle linebacker regularly.

At age 31, which is advanced for a football player and absolutely ancient for a special teamer, Tillman paused the other day to consider the luminaries among his often-unnoticed colleagues, the specialists even within special teams, the all-time NFL wrecking crew.

"The best kickoff coverage guys?" he said. "Hey, that's like the 10 best movies of all time. You need time." He did consent to a list, in no special order.

"Jon Jaqua (former Redskin) is the first who comes to mind," he said. "And Rodrigo Barnes when he was with the Cowboys. And Dallas' Thomas Henderson. Now, I'm only talking about the great ones, not just guys who were good.

"Ike Kelley of the Eagles was the best I ever saw, other than me, and (Bob) Bruent for us. Bobby Picard, who's now with Detroit. I think, and Mike Adamle, when he was with the Jets, Fred McNeil (of the Vikings) and Mickey Zofko, who was with the Lions.

Vince Papale of the Eagles has done well. But, hell, he's only been in the league two years. Too bad he didn't get a chance earlier. (Brad) Dusek could have been tremendous, but he was only at it one year. And of course Donnie Shell of the Steelers in great. I hear Alex Hawkins was, too.

"You want to know who busted a wedge against us better than anyone? Larry Wilson, in his last year with the Cards, '72, I think. I just could not believe it. An all-pro, maybe the greatest safety who ever lived, still throwing his body into a wedge. Incredible."

Ten guys do not simply go out there and line up, five on either side of the kicker, any more. There is a science to head-hunting these days, and there are positions: L1 through L5 on one side of the kicker and R1 through R5 on the other.

"R1 and R2, L1 and L2 are the wedge-busters," Tillman said, beginning a clinic. "They're usually linebacker or tight-end types, strong enough to bust and fast enough to get down for a middle return.

"R3 and L3 should be the best tacklers, with good speed. Brunet was a 3 man. (Pete) Wysocki is now. Your 4 men almost have to be linebacker types now, because more and more teams are using side returns.

"Jaqua was a great 4 man. He could hustle down, sneak in behind the wedge and still make the tackle. But now you need a guy like (Stu) O'Dell, who also can break a wedge.

The 5 men are defensive-back types, guys with speed who're good tacklers.They're the contain men, who've got to catch the runner if he breaks free somewhere else. Larry Jones does that real well for us now. And it also helps if you have a kicker like Mark (Moseley) who also can tackle."

Although casual witnesses might think the Redskins have honed special teams to their ultimate. Tillman insists: "No one takes advantage of the kicking game like they could. All coaches stress how important it is, but most of them never do anything about it. Incredible."

Because the natural acts of the game of football - hitting and being hit - are not natural, players must constantly psyche themselves. And busting wedges is the most wicked act of all. (Tillman once knocked an entire four-man wedge flat with a neck-high dive - and also made the tackle.)

"Every time I line up," Tillman said. "I've got to talk myself into it. The more you do it the more you realize the collisions that're gonna take place. And the tremendous hitting, the blind-side blocks. The clips. The more you do the more aware you are of what could happen - and the harder it is psychologically to do it.

"To do it well requires a tremendous amount of concentration. And positive thinking."