This time, Bobby Beathard was certain he'd found a "sleeper," a player none of his colleagues had ever seen or heard of.

Still, just to be sure his buried treasure hadn't been unearthed, the general manager and chief talent scout of the Redskins casually popped the question to the prospect.

"How many teams have worked you out since the end of the college season?" Beathard asked on day last week while standing in the middle of the practice field at a small Southern college.

"Oh, I'd say 17 others," came the reply.

Although it was a bright and beautiful spring day, Beathard's mood suddenly turned gloomy.

So much for the sleeper.

"Gosh darn it," he said later over a plate of fettuccine. "That's the problem with the draft being this late. When it was in February, no one would have this guy rated as high as we do. But now they've all had a chance to look at him."

For NFL fans, the college draft becomes a significant subject around mid-April, when teams are making final preparations for selection day.

For Beathard and his fellow scouts, the draft is a year-round obsession.

They live by the stop watch. They focus on lateral movement, quick feet and upper body strength. They drive rental cars, sleep in out-of-the-way motels, ride bumpy planes and gobble hurried meals.

Sleepers, sure things, rejects and ifs dominate their conversation.

By the time the Redskins choose their first player on April 29, the opening day of the draft, Beathard will have seen in person 1,200 players. He also will have visited opproximately 200 colleges in the last year, fulfilling a vow he made early in his career never to select anyone he had not scouted personally, at least not in the early rounds.

Traveling has taken over his life. And the uneasy feeling that he doesn't know everything he should about every player he likes has taken over his nightmares.

Those queasy feelings have intensified this year. This is an extra special draft for both Washington and its general manager. Not since 1968 have the Redskins had a No. 1 pick going into the draft. Beathard wants to be sure -- very sure -- his choice is a good one.

That's why the search for No. 1 -- and for the other eight players he will ultimately select -- continued even last week, when many other clubs already were concentrating on 1981 prospects.

"We had a mock draft a couple of weeks ago," Beathard said, "and we wound up with a list of players we had questions about. We weren't quite sure where to put them in our list. So we decided to take another look at them."

Once, back when most NFL teams had one-man personnel departments and many clubs drafted on the basis of whim and reputation, talent hunters like Bobby Beathard could go weeks without seeing another scout.

Those were the days when people were laughing at the Dallas computer and the rich got richer because they decided to sink money into their scouting organization.

"Now I can't go into the smallest airport without seeing another scout," said Gil Brandt of the Cowboys. "Heck, even team owners are doing scouting. It's getting that bad."

Not that scouts don't keep dreaming about private workouts with prospects. Beathard was having just that kind of dream at the start of a recent trip. He had arranged a date with I. M. Hipp, the Nebraska running back, and he was sure no other bird dog would join him.

Then he walked into the terminal at the Columbia, S.C., airport and saw the man from Tampa Bay, who had been asked by Hipp to show up at the same time. And when the man from Pittsburgh, who was leaving town, saw the men from Washington and Tampa Bay, he decided to stick around a few more hours.

The private workout became an open book. If Beathard was upset by the turn of events, he didn't let it show. He learned long ago a poker face is absolutely essential in this high-stake game.

Ironically, Beathard has the most respect for the Tampa and Pittsburgh scouting departments. Like him, the outher scouts also had questions about Hipp, who had been a sensation as a sophomore but suffered with gout and had tailed off his last two years at Nebraska.

"You see him on film as a sophomore and he's sensational," Beathard explained. "But he looks different his last two years. Maybe it was the gout. Maybe the offense didn't suit him anymore. Maybe they used him wrong."

Hipp met the scouts, who included Mike Allman, the Resdkins' director of personnel, in the middle of the University of South Carolina football stadium. Hipp had dropped out of Nebraska for a semester and returned home to concentrate, he said, "on making sure I was ready for the pros. I don't want to blow my chances."

These workouts were old hat to Hipp, who had gone through eight before this one. He cooperated fully as he was subjected to a series of tests: 20- and 40-yard dashes (to judge speed), standing broad jump (to judge spring), a shuttle spring (mobility), cutting drills (agility). He caught passes. He took pitchouts. His arms and hands were measured.

He had not been a pass receiver at Nebraska, so the scouts wanted to see if he had soft hands. They wanted to see if he had stayed in condition since the season ended and if he possessed more mobility than he had shown in college.

"I don't make a decision about someone based solely on what we see out here," said Beathard, who already had studied Hipp on film and at games. "But this means a lot. You get a feel for a kid when you can talk to him. That's important. We look at personality and character too."

Hipp had no problem meeting the personality requirements. Mature and outgoing, he was relaxed and friendly despite the pressures. He also had no problems as a physical specimen. Despite weighing only 200 pounds, he had by far the strongest legs of any Nebraska player and his upper body reflected the labor of hours in the weight room.

"Come here for a minute," Allman finally said to him, "Let's do this." He took out a $5 bill and held it between two of Hipp's ouspread fingers. "Try to grab it when I let it go," Allman instructed.

"He, I.M.," laughed Beathard. "On the last guy, he used a $20. He must be worried about you."

But time and again, Hipp couldn't grab the $5 bill, one more test of a man's reflexes. And try as they could, Beathard and Allman still couldn't make their minds about him.

"He'll be a question mark on draft day," Beathard said."He might make some team a heck of a back. But what happened those last two years?"

Hipp knows there are questions.Maybe that's why he goes through these workouts, which can last up to an hour, realizing that a poor showing could jeopardize his chances.

"I'm just trying to sell myself," he said. "I'm really relaxed."

Had he ever considered refusing to work out, a stand some top prospects take every year?

"On no," he said. "They've got their job to do and it can help me. Why should I fight it?"

Beathard walked out of his house at the start of a recent trip with 35 cents in his pocket and no shampoo.

But he didn't forget his stopwatch or his football.

Without these two essentials -- and a credit card -- no scout would feel comfortable.

"You want to see how fast the guy is," Beathard said. "And you never know if the guy will have a football. I like the agility tests and all but I put a lot of weight on watching him catch passes and run with the ball."

Beathard has supreme confidence in his scouting ability. He sees himself an evaluator of personnel, not just a scout. In his mind, there are a lot of scouts in the league, but very few evaluators, which is why he is convinced he can build any team through the draft.

"Some guys will go out and watch a 9.5 sprinter and come back and say he is fast," he said, driving a rented car at a rapid rate of speed toward the next workout session of South Carolina State.

"But you have to look for lateral quickness and acceleration, things like that. Speed alone isn't everything."

But instinct is. Beathard relies heavily on his instincts, once the test results are in and all the films have been rated.

Normally, only a hairline of difference separates many of the players in any draft -- "everyone can tell the great ones and the bad one, it's the in-betweens that make it hard" -- and he has to rely on his experience and gut feelings to make choices.

He's been right a lot, making some magnificent decisions while player personnel director at Miami. But he's been wrong too. The first year he drafted for Miami, Beathard used a second-round choice -- Miami's first in that draft -- to take Chuck Bradley, a center from Oregon who never made it. Then again, with his next pick that year, he chose Leon Gray in the third round, a consensus all-pro that last few years.

When he first got into this scouting business, after his short pro playing career ended in San Diego, he gave himself five years to become a player personnel director. He made it in seven and became a general manager in 15. And he still loves every minute of it.

"I never wanted to be a coach, but I always felt comfortable scouting," he said as the azalea-lined road whizzed by. "Once I got to travel nationally so I could compare sections, I had confidence I could judge talent correctly."

Allman offers further insight into Beathard's love of the profession. "He just likes to show off his arm in the workouts," he said. Beathard, a former college quarterback, laughed.

Scouting is a business for loners. It can wreak havoc with a marriage and lead to ulcers. It means watching films in the john, as is the case at one small Southern school, or trying for four hours to find a cab on Easter Sunday in State College, Pa. That happened to a Kansas City scout this year.

It means driving 800 miles through Alabama and Mississippi the previous week, as Allman and Beathard had done, to see eight prospects. And it means wasting 300 of those miles when one player never showed up for his workout.

Beathard says he survives because he runs. A marathon man and vegetarian, he sorts out his days during long runs through the countryside. Give him all-bran for breakfast, apples and bananas for lunch, a top prospect to scout in the afternoon and a river to run beside at night and he is in scouting heaven.

His search for players begins with reports on every senior in the country, provided by the scouting combine the Redskins share with 15 other teams.

Then he sends his five fulltime scouts to see the best prospects face-to-face throughout the fall and spring. They watch games and film and more film. They conduct workouts, talk to coaches, trainers and fans. And they listen to everyone.

Finally, Beathard sits down and evaluates the best. Hundreds of players are assigned a rating. In Beathard's system, 9.0 and above is tops. Anyone below 4.0 isn't worth mentioning, or drafting.

On draft day, it's simple. When the Redskins' turn comes in the first round, they will select the highest rated player on their board who has not already been selected by another club.

"People put a lot of emphasis on the first round and they should," Beathard said. "We'll get a good player in the first round. What's important is that we get good players the rest of the way too. Not having a third-round pick hurts, there are players out there I want who will be left on that round.

"Teams will make mistakes too. That's what you hope for. If they leave someone open, you have to grab him."

These scouts are a cautious lot. If they came upon Bo Derek, they wouldn't give her a rating until they'd studied her on film. And then she would never get a 10.

"Haven't seen a 10 yet," said Beathard, referring to football prospects. "I'm still waiting for even a 9.9."

There are no 9.9's in the 1980 draft. Beathard says there are just four in the 9.0 category. "And a lot of 4's." When there are that many 4's, it means a lot more travel for everyone.

Phil Murphy, a 6-foot-4, 279-pound defensive tackel from South Carolina State, was a disappointment. The Redskins need defensive linemen and Murphy has promising talent, enough to warrant a personal look by Washington defensive coordinator Doc Urich.

But he just didn't have the quickness Beathard wants, the kind of quickness Pittsburgh drafts. And he had a weight problem.

"No I don't," Murphy said. "I was up to 400 once but I keep my weight to 265 or so now. I got to 235 once when I was playing basketball."

He didn't convince the Redskin men. "You are going to have to watch your weight all the time," Urich told him. But Murphy didn't sem to be listening.

Even though Murphy hadn't lived up to expectations, Beathard still was excited. He had worked out a free agent named Gary McLean, who had attended VMI and had been cut last year by Cincinnati during training camp. McLean, a defensive back, was fast. Very fast.

"4.38," Beathard said as McLean finished a 40-yard dash. "I got 4.35," said the man from Tampa. "Wow," said the man from Pittsburgh.

"You don't see many guys who can run 4.4 forties," Beathard said. "Did you see how those guys from Tampa and Pittsburgh reacted?"

That's one benefit of being a general managr who scouts. While the other talent men had to report back to their bosses about McLean, Beathard signed him that night. The Redskins need young cornerbacks and besides, "you can't pass up a guy with that kind of quickness. He's worth a look."

Scouting can also be a dangerous job. One scout took so long to leave a plane that the jet-boarding ramp had been pulled back. As he stepped off the plane, he turned around and waved. Then he fell 20 feet to the ground. And the projector he was carrying hit him on the head.

By contrast, this trip had been a breeze. Beathard had worked out eight players without incident and now was finishing up with his sleeper candidate.

Allman, who wasn't completely convinced the player was as good as Beathard thought, beckoned the prospect to the sidelines.

He took out a $1 bill. "Here," he said, "try to catch it between your fingers when I let it drop."

The sleeper grabbed the floating money on the first try.

"I may be right after all about him," Beathard told Allman later. "If not, I think you would have used a $20 with him."

And then he ran off to catch another plane.