To the man, professional scouts will tell you that the worst thing they can say about a young football player has nothing to do with his speed in the 40-yard dash, the dimensions of his upper body or the tonnage he can lift over his head.

A football coach can tolerate a man who is a half-step slow, a few pounds overweight, a little weak on the clean and jerk. But slow a coach a football player possessed of what those scouts call your basic "attitude problem" and odds are excellent that same coach will quickly show that player to the closest available door.

In a hurry.

Four years ago, a scouting report on a smallish running back out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Malcolm (Mike) Thomas, containing those same words, became a hot topic of conversation at Redskin Park.

The Redskins were in desperate need of a healthy running back. Larry Brown's knees were shot after six years of non-stop punishment, and no one on the roster could possibly take his place.

On draft day of 1975 George Allen decided to gamble and make Mike Thomas his team's first choice - in the fifth round - despite that "attitude problem."

Allen gushed over Thomas' eye-popping statistics and told reporters he had come up with a sleeper.

Asked why such a precious jewel was available in the fifth round, Allen offered the usual mumbo-jumbo about his size, the fact that Thomas went to such a small school and played against mostly inferior opposition.

But the scouts had the real answer. Attitude problem, they whispered. Wait and see, they said.

In his first three seasons as a professional, Mike Thomas has lugged a football for more yards than any running back in the history of the Redskins over the name span. Thomas has produced 3,844 yards rushing and receiving. Larry Brown gained a total of 3,780 his first three years. No one else is even close.

Although Brown is remembered as one of this city's most revered athletes, Thomas receives little of that same love or respect. Sometimes he wonders why.

He wonders why the Redskins are allowing him to play out his option in 1978 and why they "never made me any kind of respectable offer." They just don't want to pay me. I can't understand it."

He also wonders why some of his teammates, past and present, keep saying that Thomas has never been tough enough to be a great running back in the National Front League.

Those critical teammates recall his rookie season in 1975. Thomas apparently took himself out of an important game against the Dallas Cowboys because of bruised ribs.

"I remember going over to him on the bench and calling him every name in the book." one player recalled. "He just wouldn't go back in. We had guys playing with broken bones, bad knees, guys who were held together with tape and that's it. Mike wouldn't go back in.He could have played. Sure he was rookie of the year, but nobody asked his teammates to vote."

Thomas also did little to endear himself to the coaching staff in 1977 refusing to report for the opening of training camp in a contract dispute. He showed up two days later and popped a hamstring muscle 20 minutes into his first practice.

Thomas eventually was signed to a one-year contract last summer in the $125,000-a-year range, but the hamstring never healed properly and he limped through a disappointing season.

Midway through the year, Thomas also charged that Allen had forced him to practice one day although hurt.

The following day, Allen dressed him down during a team meeting ("the first time George every did that," one veteran player said) told him he would be on the taxi squad that week and demanded Thomas apologize for his remarks.

Later in the season, Thomas had additional physical problems. He says he felt his hamstring tighten in the 13th game against the Cardinals and again took himself out of action. The following week, he was replaced in the starting lineup by Calvin Hill and did not play in the last game of the year against the Rams.

"The rap against Mike has always been that he's avoided tough situations," another player said. "He takes himself out of games, and there's a code in this league that you don't do that unless you have to be carried off.

"As far as his ability, Mike has super ability, great quickness, quick feet, a shifty body. He doesn't have that great breakaway speed of a Tony Dorsett or an O.J. Simpson. But he can definitely get a lot of yards. But everybody in the league also knows if you hit him hard enough, he's gonna take himself out."

Thomas winces at talk like that although he knows people have said those sort of things since he came out of Greenville, Tex., as the state's rolled at Oklahoma University in 1971.

"Mike was ineligible as a freshman because he was a nonpredictor." recalled New England Coach Chuch Fairbanks, then the head coach at Oklahoma. "It was a difficult year for him. He didn't like school anyway, and not being able to play was tough."

The first time Thomas touched the ball at Oklahoma, he ran 90 yards for a touchdown as a sophomore against Oregon. But he was hampered by injuries all season, didn't play much and decided to leave school after Fairbanks accepted the New England job.

"Mike's a real sensitive kid." Fairbanks said. "One day he was happy, one he'd be down and discouraged. At Oklahoma there were a series of discouragements for him. Had I been there.I would have made a concerted effort to keep him there."

"I knew when Chuck left I had to go, too." Thomas said. "Barry Switzer was named the head coach, and we just weren't made for each other. I didn't like his style of coaching. I never raised my voice at him, and I expected the same thing from him. But it's just didn't work out that way."

Thomas went back home to Greenville the second semester of his sophomore year. "I hit the streets every night, didn't do anything really and I spent a lot of time wondering how I could get my life back together again," he said.

An assistant coach at Nevada Las Vegas called offering a scholarship, and Thomas went west to a campus he had never even laid eyes upon until they day he arrived.

Thomas had a spectacular college career, gaining 3,140 yards and scoring 40 touchdowns for the Rebels in two years. But all was not sunshine and roses.

In his senior year, Thomas was elected a cocaptain. "The head coach (Ron Myer, now at SMU) removed a player from the team, a black player who had started the year before," Thomas said.

"They just took his job away. So myself and the other captains went to Myer to complain. We went back to practice the next day and all the players, white and black, were wearing one black sock. The mood of practice was bad. I wasn't running plays right, and he told me if I didn't start doing things right, he'd kick me off.

"He did. For one night. Then he put me back on the team and I gained something like 265 yards with five touchdowns. But after that incident, making me practice hurt, well, I really thought they were abusing me. When he (Allen) called me out in front of the team I know he was expecting me to get mad, but I didn't. I thought it was kind of funny.

"The hamstring was strange. Some days it felt great, some days it didn't. Before that St. Louis game in the cold, I went out on the field and the thing just tightened right up. I had tears in my eyes it hurt so much.

"But I tried to run because I knew the game was so important. I couldn't do it. Was it more important to have me in there hurting, or somebody else who could do the job with two legs instead of one?"

"George Allen was a type person I could never go and talk to, we never established that kind of relationship. But he should have respected my feelings. I never complained about those long practices or some of the other stuff he did. I went and saw every doctor they told me to see. I took shots. I did everything. It just didn't get better. The only thing I could do was sit down. The leg was on my body, no one else's"

The leg is totally healed now as Thomas enters his fourth season of professional football the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] will not talk contract with the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] any more "because it's not [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] go begging.

"I can't understand [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] pay me, it just makes no [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] but if that's why [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] I can deal with that. I [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] is a business. So I've [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] great year and I think I will [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] to go somewhere else, I'll do [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]

"I just bought a new [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] in Vienna. My family loves it in Washington, and I do, too. But if that's how they want to handle it, that's fine.

"I just don't like people saying I'm not tough enough. I'm not the kind of runner Larry Brown was. He had a different kind of body. He could take punishment and dish it out, too.That's not my style, it never was. But I got yards, too, look at the stats.

"And as long as I can live with myself - and I can - nothing bothers me. I've always been the type of person to always say and do what I believe in. I've always been outspoken. My parents taught me that.

"And anybody who wants to say I'm not tough enough, well, all they have to do is stand right view in front of me, and we'll see about that."