Ken Houston was addressing a church group in Houston several years ago when a middle-aged women raised her hand. "How do you consider herself a Christian." she asked. "When you go out on Sunday and beat people up?"

"They probably don't play football in heaven," Houston answered that day, and every other time he hears the same question. "But the way I look at it. I don't mix the two. I playt the game because it's my profession, and I don't see any contradiction between my religion and my profession. I play because it's what I do best."

There are people around the National Football League who also will tell you that no one does it better than Houston, a fixture in the Pro Bowl for each of the last 10 years and a man considered to be the best strong safety in football, if not the game's most-talented player.

Listen to Don Klosterman, the Ram general manager now and the fellow who made Houston the Houston Oiler's ninth-round draft choice in 1967.

"I would have to say that Kenny is one of the best football players I have ever seen," Klosterman said. "There are no peaks and valleys, just a consistently excellent performance every time he's out on that field. He's a greater leader and as fine a man as you will ever met in you life."

Houston said he is flattered when people say those sort of things, "but it's kind of embarrassing too. I appreciate it, but I really have no desire to be in the limeligh. It's just not my nature. I wasn't brought up that way. I'm no special hero. I'm just a man who plays a game."

His teammates, however, will tell you that he is very special.

"Kenny/ Oh, yeah, he's legit," said middle linebacker Harold McLinton. "I'm not talking about football. I'm talking about him as a person. He is genuinely concerned for people - not just his friends or his teammates, but everyone. The man cares."

Houston's life is a testament to that. He and his wife, Gustie, a former NASA engineer now completing doctoral requirements in mathematics, have helped put countless younger relatives through college or nursing school. They have either built or remodeled homes for both sets of parents. And they both are tireless community workers in Houston, where they live in the offseason.

"I'm sure financially we would have been better off living in Washington," Houston said. "But money's not our hangup. Both our families are from Texas, and we're both family people.

I'm also an outdoor person. We have a small farm down there. I've stocked a couple of the ponds. I go there because I'm happy there.

"I'm not the kind of person who wants to spend his whole life worrying about money. I believe in enjoying life and I'll take less money to work less hours to do it."

For years, Houston has accepted none or very little money to work with Houston children, trying to get them jobs, convincing them to stay in school, counseling them on the dangers of drug and alcoholic abuse.

For a dozen years, the Houstons lived in the Sunnyside section of Houston, a predominately black area "where I always felt comfortable. I never saw any reason to go to the suburbs. A lot of good friends lived there, and I was happy.

"Just before we left for training camp this year, we decided to move. Over the last few years, the crime rate kept getting worse and worse, a lot of burglaries, I hated to do it, but I was just getting very concerned about my wife safety."

When he talks about his wife, Houston's eyes sparkle. "We have a beautiful marriage," he says. "We're best friends and I can't do without her because she's a person I really enjoy. We try and do everything together. She's just a wonderful person."

They have known each other since their college days at Prarie View A&M. Houston was a converted high school center who nearly was cut from the team as a freshman because he was too thin. Gustie was captain of the cheerleaders.

"Kenny came to Prairie View as part of package deal." Hoover Wright, the school's head coach, recalled yesterday. "He came from a small high school and he was not that highly recruited. Actually, we took him to get a big guy from the same area.

"They put Kenny on offense and he was awful, just because he was too small. He was about to be cut from the team, but they sent him over to me - I was the defensive coach at the time - and I made him into a linebacker."

"You could see right away that he had all the right instincts, and he was a great athlete. We finally used him as a rover back. We called him the monster man, and he was one tough football player. And he's always made the right decisions.

"He was red-shirted his freshman year and the Chargers drafted him after his junior year. But we talked about it and he decided he'd be better off getting his degree. Sure, I had a selfish interest, too. I didn't want to lose him."

Houston had two knee operations before the start of his senior year," and I really didn't expect too many teams to be interested in me," he said.

But the Oilers had seen him play, and before the draft, Klosterman invited him to Houston for a tryout. "I'll never forget it," Klosterman said. "There were three guys - Kenny, Alvin Reed and Roy Hopkins, a running back at Texas Southern, and I had them run the 40. Kenny was just gliding and he did 4.6. We thought we really had something there. No, getting Kenny on the ninth round was not a bad deal at all."

In Houston's rookie year, the Oilers won their AFL division, but "things kept getting worse every year and we had some awful seasons," he said. "They kept changing players and coaches and it was a mess. At one point, I really was thinking very seriously about retiring. You just can't imagine how bad it is to play on teams that are 2.12 or 1.13."

And then came The Trade.

George Allen sent five players to the Oilers for Houston before the 1973 season and he has been making big plays in the Redskin secondary ever since.

Through all those seasons, Houston also has occasionally been criticized by opposing players and coaches for his flying-forearm, swinging-elbows approach to tackling.Specifically, he has been accused of dirty play.

"Sure, it bothers me," Houston said." I remember one guy a few years ago said something about me being a violent person. I wrote him a letter and apologized. But I don't consider myself that way at all. I'm not a dirty player.

"I'm a high hitter, and I'm not trying to hurt anybody. I'm trying to protect myself. The first thing a man is taught in this game is to stick his helmet into your chest. If you don't stop that momentum, you'll get hurt yourself.

"The nature of the game is violent. Anytime you get a man weighing 220 pounds running fast, there's going to be a collision. So I use the elbow or a forearm just to hold off the initial charge. I think they'd rather get hit by that than by a helmet. I don't know which is stronger, the forearm or the neck, but I also know which one I'd rather not get broken."

Over the years, Houston has survived most of those crashes and collisions with minimal injures. He has not missed a game since 1968, and probably hasn't missed a practice in Washington since he arrived in 1973.

And yet, for each of the last two years. Houston said he has played with a pulled stomach muscle that affected his speed and very nearly made him decide to retire after the 1977 season.

"Last year was the worst mental drain I've ever had playing football," Houston said. "Chris (Hamburger) got hurt and I had to call the signals. With George Allen coaching, there was a lot of pressure on me not to make a mistake. You start to question yourself all the time - did I make the right call, did I put us in the right defense?

"I was working two and three more hours a night studying films, going over the playbook, learning linebacker calls.My head was spinning. Plus I had to worry about playing safety, too. I just didn't want to go through another year like that."

"Then they made some changes (in the coaching staff) and I started working out and my stomach felt a lot better. I knew Chris was coming back, too, and that was a relief. So I decided to try it again, and I'm glad I did.

"Football is fun again. I enjoy playing for Jack (Pardee) and Richie (Petiborn, the secondary coach). Being former players themselves, they have a real feel for what we need to do. And I think I'd like to play one more year. I don't ever want to play past my time, but I do think I have one more good year left

And after that?

"I think I'd like to teach school, maybe high school, maybe even in a penal institution. Those people really want to learn and I'd like to try and help them. I'm not looking to get rich or anything like that. I just feel I have something to offer."