Three days ago, when the Redskins had do cut seven players, Rusty Tillman, for nine years an important man on the team, sat on a wooden bench outside the locker room. "I hate what they are doing to Lenny Hauss," he said suddenly.
No one had asked about Hauss. It had been in the papers that Hauss, once a great center, might be cut by the Redskins after 14 years. But no one had asked about Hauss, and it seemed strange that Tillman would bring up his name.
"Why don't they act like a man about it?" Tillman said. "Tell Lenny what's happening."
By nature, Tillman is a happy man. On this day, bitterness owned him. He nodded in the direction of a distant figure, the team's coach, Jack Pardee.
"Look at Pardee," Tillman said. "Sizing everybody up. 'Hmmm, who goes, who stays?"
No one had asked about Hauss, but Tillman said: "They just ignore Lenny, like he's not there. He deserves to be treated with some dignity after what he's done here."
Tillman talked about Hauss without being asked because it was easier than talking about himself. Tillman cared about the cold and impersonal farewell the Redskins had imposed upon a proud man. And he was worried that he was next.
Just over three weeks ago, Tillman had surgery to repair an injured right knee. Outside the locker room this day, he seemed helpless. Only by playing well could he make the team; but because of the knee he couldn't play at all. Whatever happened to Hauss . . . however, time has reduced his skills and made him dispensable . . . might happen to Tillman, too, and all he could do was sit outside the locker room and talk bravely.
If it was the Super Bowl coming up tomorrow, Tillman said, he could play. They called him the king of the special teams. He was a reserve linebacker who raced downfield on punts and kickoffs, hurling his body at the nearest enemy. For his work, the old coach, George Allen, raised Tillman's salary to maybe $65,000, an extraordinary figure for work that a nerveless rookie might do for $20,000 with little noticeable reduction in the team's effectiveness.
Money comes into play here. The Redskins under Allen last year pay 57 players about $3.6 million, reportedly the biggest payroll in the league. Whether by order of owner Edward Bennett Williams or by exercising good business sense, the new regime at Redskin Park - General Manager Bobby Beathard, mainly - has trimmed the roster to 49 men and reduced the payroll signifcantly.
The payroll has been cut with the retirement, trades and outright releases of 18 full-time men on last year's team. Those 18 earned about $1,175,000.
With those 18 gone, the Redskins have added 13 new players this season and those 13 are being paid about $480,000.
That's a payroll deduction of $695,000.
In the retirements of Pat Fisher and Charley Taylor, and in the trades of Eddie Brown and Tim Stokes, Tillman likely foresaw a pufgue of high-salaried veterans. Even before training camp, he had to know he was in trouble. Maybe Allen needed a king of the special teams, but most coaches would as soon have a young (and cheap) prince.
Then came Tillman's knee surgery after the first exhibition game. And then came the waiting for the end.
"Who the hell knows?" Tillman said outside the locker room three days ago. "About the time I get healthy, they'll probably cut me."
They didn't wait until he was healthy.
And now Tillman is angry.
He told The Post's Leonard Shapiro he will ask the NFL Players Association if he should file a grievance against the Redskins. He says the Redskins cannot release him while he is injured without agreeing to pay him until he is healthy enough to play. He says the Redskins have promised only one week's pay. The whole thing, he said, is a "real injustice."
The NFLPA staff counsel, Dick Berthelsen, said he will contact the Redskins today "to see if they've ready to fulfill their obligations." At Redskin Park, Beathard refused to talk about the affair, saying: "After reading what Rusty said, I'd rather not comment."
It need not become ugly.
For eight season, Tillman did a job for the Redskins that few men are willing, or able, to do. But as his salary rose with his age, it came to a point where good business sense recognized the diminishing of returns. Ironically, the higher his salary, the more vulnerable he became. If Ford Motor Co. can dump a president being paid in seven figures, the Redskins can cut a wedge-buster getting $65,000.
But why make it demeaning?
Why tell Rusty Tillman to take a week's pay and limp out of sight?
Some explanations are possible.
One: The Redskins took Tillman at his word actually believing his wishful talk that he could play tomorrow. They didn't want him to play at all, but if he is healthy enough to play tomorrow, that means they owe him only a week's pay, about $4,000. As weak as such logic is (Tillman, still limping, is at least a month away from playing pro football), the morality of such legalistic games of semantics is outrageous.
Another explanation, darker: Tillman's knee was no worse than ever and, fearing he would be dropped for good, he went to surgery only in hopes of being placed on injured reserve, where he would draw an entire year's salary while recuperating. So the Redskins, unwilling to be conned out of $65,000, called Tillman's bluff for $4,000.
Truth lies in between the possible explanations, no doubt, but all of it is pettiness. A million dollars is not at stake here. If Tillman is declared healthy in, say, six weeks, the Redskins would owe him about $24,000.
With $5 million coming in from TV and with the 13 new men costing $695,000 less than the 18 old-timers, Edward Bennett Williams will not need a loan to pay Rusty Tillman the pittance due him for works so difficult that, after eight years, the team doctor said, all right, let's repair the knee.