Jon Kolb took his thumb, the meaty part, and pressed it dead-center against his nose.

His nose disappeared.

Gone.

Flat.

There is nothing left inside Kolb's nose to give it shape. The cartilage has been ground up.

"Near as I can count, my nose has been broken six times," said Kolb, 32, the 11-year veteran offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Offensive linemen carry a distinctive badge of identification.

It's a lumpy scar across the bridge of the nose.

It's caused by the edge of the helmet being shoved down onto the nose in a collision.

"The nose gets peeled down, they sew it back up and it peels back down," Kolb said.

He's had four fingers broken.

"Unless you're a concert pianist, it doesn't matter," Kolb said. "I can still shake hands and write letters."

"It's insane, what we do to our bodies." -- Rusty Tillman, Redskins, 1978

The National Football League requires its teams to report injuries that may keep players out of games. These late-week reports list players as "probable," "questionable," "doubtful," and "out." It is an exercise in sadism to read a season's worth of these reports, such as are reprinted on this page.

Look at the Steelers. Twenty-eight different Steelers show up on the injury reports. That does not mean that only 28 Steelers were hurt this season. That means that only 28 were hurt enough to get on the list. Those 28 men appear 87 times with Jon Kolb making the list seven of the 18 regular-season and playoff weeks.

The Rams suffered on a grander scale. Thirty-nine Rams appeared 118 times. Six important Rams, including star wide receiver Ron Jessie and quarterback Pat Haden, were put on injured reserve for the season, so badly were they hurt.

Ironically, both Haden and Jessie are healthy now and could play in the Super Bowl. They are ineligible, however, because Coach Ray Malavasi said he had no choice but to replace them on the roster when he needed live bodies in the stretch run for the playoffs. The Super Bowl wasn't much of a possibility when Haden went out. The Rams had a 5-6 won-lost record then. Since then they have won six of seven games.

"After the operation, I couldn't stand to watch Jack play. I thought that every time he got hit, the cancer would come back." -- Phyllis Pardee

Why would Jack Pardee, now the Redskins' coach, subject himself to the collisions of football after he survived a 13-hour operation to take cancer out of his arm?

Jack Youngblood of the Rams will play today's Super Bowl on a broken left leg, just as he played two weeks ago against Tampa Bay.

"I'm paid to play, is why," Youngblood said. "I'm a football player and I'll play if I can."

These are war games these men play. There are flanks and bombs and blitzes. These are combatants, not players. If Jack Youngblood were under fire, a little old broken leg wouldn't keep him from duty.

Anyway, Youngblood says, it's not that big a deal, playing on a broken leg.

"It's the fibula and it's not a weight-bearing bone, and so the doctor says I can't hurt it anymore," said the defensive end who, in his 10th season, is in his first Super Bowl.

"It's a matter of mind over body. It doesn't hurt anywhere near what it did at Tampa Bay (when his lower leg was a gruesome blue). Pain is something you can control. You get into a conscious flow of the game and you forget about a lot of little things."

"In San Francisco once, I was kicked in the groin early in the game and again before halftime. It hurt terribly, but I kept telling myself I was a coward looking for an easy way out. I brainwashed myself into carrying on. I finished the game. In the locker room afterward, I couldn't untie my shoes. I was in the hospital four days." -- Merlin Olsen, in "A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football"

Jack Tatum, in his book "They Call Me Assassin," says it is his intent to strike such a savage blow against intruding ball carriers that they will never pass his way again without the trembles.

Tatum says he and a teammate, George Atkinson, devised a system wherein points were awarded, bounty-like, for the effectiveness of a hit, the largest prize going to the man who causes the stretcher-bearers to carry someone off the field.

Ugly.

And legal.

Not only legal, but advised.

Not only advised, but taught.

Literature, as politics, creates strange bedfellows. On the television one night, a talk show had as its theme sports books. John Underwood, a delight, was there with his book on how violence was destroying the football he so loved. James Michener, a fan, had done a sports book full of optimism. h

Between these men sat Jack Tatum, Assassin. When Michener pointed out the irony of Tatum sitting next to Underwood, the Assassin allowed as to how he really wasn't a bad guy, he was just playing the game the way he was taught, all out agressively.

Tatum is the ultimate product of football's seek-and-destroy mentality. It is not enough to transmit only the electric power of a collision necessary to stop a man or to move him; nothing must be held back; if a man is vulnerable to injury from the force of a legal hit, that is his problem. You can call me Assassin but you cannot arrest me. h

Small wonder, then, that 28 Steelers and 39 Rams showed up on those injury lists.

The wonder is that after a season that began with training camp six months ago for today's teams -- this is the 23rd game of the working year -- the wonder is that anyone still has the preferred number of limbs, any of them in working order.

"I don't know if those collisions would kill the average man," said Dr. Robert Kerlan, for 20 years a sports medicine pioneer and doctor to the L.A. teams. "But they would kill me."

That football players survive is tribute, first, to the remarkable bodies they have, bodies at once very strong and very flexible, and, second, to their willingness to accept the trauma their choice of professions visits upon them.

It is, Kerlan said, "survival of the fittest."

He said, "The early selection process begins when they stay in the games suited to their psychological and physiological pursuits. This tremendous elimination process, where millions of potential athletes are pared down to 28 teams with 50 players each, really separates the people who can -- and want to -- play the game."

Is there a common denominator in this group of elite athletes?

"We come up with a group of men with a higher than average threshold of pain," Dr. Kerlan said.

"If I hurt, I didn't tell anybody except God, and I told Him in language He wouldn't like." -- Billy Kilmer, Redskins, 1977

Gerry Mullins has a "burner."

A burner is a pinched nerve in the neck.

The pain feels like fire in there.

Mullins, 30, a 9-year veteran offensive guard with the Steelers, remembers the arrival of this latest in a long series of burners.

"We do a lot of trap blocking here, and so the offensive linemen wind up throwing their heads in the way of people," he said. "I was sticking my head in there and somebody gave it a lick. And when a 260-pound defensive tackle at full speed runs into your neck, giving you like a whiplash, it can get you hurt."

This one pinched a nerve.

"It felt like somebody stuck a knife down into my shoulder.

"A hot knife.

"I about blacked out. I lost the strength in my left hand.If you get hit a good one, you go right to your knees. And it lasts a long time. It might last five seconds, which is a long time of that."

In July, Jon Kolb said, he had a spring in his step.

Three days before the Super Bowl, 22 football games, a broken nose and a separated shoulder later, Kolb said, "It took me about an hour to come from the locker room to this practice field."

Mullins said the Steelers' offensive line in mid-January is so beaten up that the starting lineup is not a question of who's healthy.

"It's who hurts the least," he said.

Mullins will play Sunday with a ring-collar around his neck in hopes it will keep his head upright when some 260-pound express comes by.

"Somebody wrote that I was the Billy Kilmer of linebackers. It was meant as a cut, but I liked it. Kilmer, he was practically killed in a car wreck. His leg almost got cut off. He kept playing and he threw it end over end and he won ball games. Billy Kilmer. Yeah." -- Jack Reynolds, Rams, linebacker

"The reason athletes fight through the pain are complex," Dr. Kerlan said. "They are reasons based on psychological, sociological, philosophical and economic factors."

All of which sounds very nice, very neat. A man checks the factors, totes up the grades, takes his injection of Xylocaine and plays when your average body would be sending for an ambulance.

"What should be and what is are two different things," said Fred Dryer, the Rams' 11-year veteran defensive end.

He smiled a bit.

"Peer pressure," he said, "can come at you from all different angles."

Pressure to play. You feel you're needed.

"It's a feeling of being needed that makes you play hurt," said Eddie Brown, the former Redskin now working at defensive back and returning kicks for the Rams.

Brown remembers seeing the toes and front half of Bill Brundige's foot turn black with frostbite after the Redskin tackle played in 9-degree cold with an injured foot taped tightly.

He remembers Pat Fischer, the little defensive back who was the heart of the Redskins' defense.

"Pat played with more pain than anybody I ever saw," Brown said. "And he wouldn't tell anybody. He gritted his teeth all day, and he played super. If I had to idolize anybody, it would be Pat Fischer and Billy Kilmer."

"Back at Marion County High School in Jasper, Tenn., I had a coach who always told me, 'If it hurts, rub a little grass on it.'" -- Eddie Brown, this week