His hair is graying. November's scars from the worst kind of knee surgery are hidden under two elastic braces on his left knee; At 35, he is an elder at his job, the fifth-oldest defensive lineman in pro football. His buddies are gone: Kilmer and McDole, Hauss and Hamburger, each gone over the hill in fact this time, not just in romantic imagery. He would be with them, knocking back a beer, telling war stories, except for one thing.

Diron Talbert can still play.

"I knew it would be lonely as hell," he said today. And it would have been easy to quit, to use the torn-apart knee as a legitimate reason to hang it up after 12 seasons. What the Redskins once were, they would never be again. No Jurgy, no Allen, no Brundige. It would be lonely for Diron Talbert, the last of those roustabout Redskins.

But here he is. Still at defensive tackle on the first unit. The ligaments ripped away from the bones in his knee joint are working again. "I'd give anything to play the violin the way you do," an idolator once said to Heifetz, who replied, "Would you give 16 hours a day every day for your whole life?" For Talbert, a good knee meant working out four hours a day seven days a week for six months.

"I'd never been through anything like it," said a man who has put back together, at one time or another, an ankle, the other knee and both shoulders.

Once a month during the offseason, Talbert flew from Texas to Redskin Park for strength and range-of-motion tests on the knee. Jack Pardee, the coach, might have expected an old war horse to skip the depressing workouts with the dream of getting in shape at training camp. Others have done it, and more will. Instead, Pardee saw Talbert working with a passion.

"I loved it," Pardee said. "If he hadn't worked out that way, there was no way he could have come back. It just proves that physically you can overcome anything if you work at it. It just takes a lot of sweat, tears and pain. He's doing well. He's had no problem with stunts or mobility. Last week, he jumped a cut block. If he has any restrictions because of the knee, he's the only one who knows it.

No restrictions at all, Talbert says. "It is a wonder what the body does. Here I am, and I don't feel like I've lost anything. And I can tell you what did it, too. A doctor in Houston examined me and said I'd never play again. Now, that was a challenge. I like challenges."

When Pardee and General Manager Bobby Beathard purged the roster of perceived malcontents and/or old-timers who couldn't do it anymore, how did the malcontent/old-timers' buddy Diron Talbert survive?

"When they got cut," Talbert said, beginning a nice stunt around the question, "it was real sad. I was kind of sick for them, Their careers were over. Chris Hamburger is a young man. He could play somewhere. Billy Kilmer could really help somebody. Jake Scott is with Minnesota. Ron McDole -- there's a lot of old defensive linemen playing. Look at me. There's still room for an old man in football."

This old man lost 30 pounds to begin the rehabilitation of his knee ("Simple. I quit drinking beer." No greater love of football is there.) After 5 1/2 weeks in a cast, he began running three weeks later. He spent 10 days at Kilmer's home in Florida, running on the beach.

"I wanted to be part of the new team, the new Redskins," Talbert said.

Well, he likely wanted to pick up another 50,000 or so for playing football, too, but not to quibble with an elder who, from 1971 on, has seen the Redskins rise from mediocrity to a Super Bowl, then fall to the ashes of 1978 when they lost eight of their last 10 games. If a 260-pound Texan says he wants to be part of the new Redskins, when the old Redskins have fired and humiliated his buddies, who's to argue?

"The key to keeping the Redskins going-- keeping what the Redskins have been -- is to keep the Redskins winning," Talbert said.

Doomsayers see this as a long season for the Redskins. They see Joe Theismann erratic at quarterback and John Riggins as the only running back of significance. They see Jean Fugett's move to wide receiver as proof certain of the Redskins' desperation there. They wonder if this offense will ever score a touchdown,

As he is circumspect about his buddies departures, so is Talbert the very vision of tact when talking about these new Redskins.

"We have a good crop of young players," he said. "They can all be pros . . . Everything has been simplified on defense. The offense is the same way. We're just trying to do what we can do best. I think we honestly have a chance to get in the playoffs somewhere."

But something, Talbert said, is missing.

This team needs an explosion," he said. "We got the dynamite, but we need somebody to set it off."

"We need somebody to come through and have a great year for us. We need somebody to light the fuse. Whether it's a defensive back who runs back an interception for a long touchdown, or whether it's Benny Malone getting 130 yards in the first game, we need somebody to light the match.

"Maybe Joe will come out and throw two long touchdown passes. Whatever it is, we need it right away. We need it this week, we need something good to happen right now. We can't wait to start a fire in midseason. Somebody has to do it now. Who knows, it could be a defensive lineman."

Diron Talbert, 35-year-old defensive lineman, isn't done yet.