When inmates first notice the name tag on the uniform of sheriff's deputy Neal Olkewicz, their reaction is usually the same.

First they ask, "Are you the same guy who plays for the Redskins?"

And then, "Why didn't you beat Dallas that last game?"

His answers are:

"Yes," and, "Can't we talk about something else?"

Frequently, there is a third inquiry, on the order of, "What's a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?" Or, "Aren't they paying you well enough to play football?"

Why is Neal Olkewicz, bachelor, budding football star and, admittedly, moderately well-off financially, working as a $15,000-a-year jail guard in the offseason?

"I don't have to work. They are paying me enough at the Redskins," admitted Olkewicz, who is on the verge of signing a new contract with the team. "And there is enough to do in the offseason just trying to keep myself in shape."

But for as long as he's wanted to be a football player, maybe longer, he's also wanted to be a policeman.

And since the Redskins might frown on his walking a beat in the offseason or cruising in a patrol car at 3 a.m., he opted for an acceptable alternative -- serving as a guard at the Fairfax County jail.

"If I hadn't caught on with the Redskins last year, I probably would have joined a police force somewhere," he said. "I majored in law enforcement at Maryland (he has his bachelor's degree) and it was something I always saw myself doing."

Olkewicz was hooded for good on being a lawman when, during his senior year at Maryland, he participated in an intern program that involved the Price George's County police force. He rode with officers for a semester and loved it.

"When that was over, I knew for sure what I wanted, other than to be a pro player," he said. "You think about joining the FBI or CIA or something like that, but for me, I think I would be happy as a patrolman. I like the work and it's exciting, just like football."

Other pro athletes sell cars or insurance or real estate. They own restaurants.They spend their leisure time playing golf or racquetball or attending school. None of the above appealed to Olkewicz, who yearned for something different to occupy his time until training camp starts in July. f

Teammate Diron Talbert provided the solution. Talbert was hunting one day with his friend, Fairfax Sheriff Wayne Huggins. Olkewicz's name came up in conversation and Talbert told the sheriff about the middle linebacker's interest in law enforcement.

Olkewicz and Huggins talked, and the player was offered the job. The Redskins approved, and Fairfax County had itself a new deputy sheriff.

"I wasn't sure if I wanted to take the job or not," Olkewicz said. "It wasn't the same as being a regular policeman and I didn't know if I would like it. But now I think it's great."

Olkewicz is a fully empowered law enforcement officer. He is authorized to make arrests. He carries a gun and is trained to use it. He is expected to stop a robbery for example, if he sees one.

But his primary duty involves supervising inmates at the Fairfax jail.

"We are their link between the jail cell and the outside world," Olkewicz said. "We serve them their food, we run their errands, we answer their questions, we talk to them, we try to make things decent for them.

"You can never imagine what it is like to be in jail until you go through it. Every little thing can set you off, like bad food or a delay in getting a message to your lawyer, things like that. What seems unimportant to us becomes a major problem for them.

"It's taught me a lot about people and about our system of justice. Some of those guys are bitter and they probablly have a right to be. You've got guys in that jail who are serving heavy sentences for some violation and you have others who have light sentences for the same thing. They ask me why, and I can't tell them."

Despite his fierce demeanor on a football field, Olkewicz is even-tempered, tolerant and low-key off it. He's also a good conversationalist, a most valuable asset during the long hours within the jail.

"We talk about everything," he said. "Football comes up a lot. Most of the inmates are either Cowboy or Steeler fans, so I take a lot of flak. But I don't mind, I can laugh about it. I tell them we'll get both of them next year.

"I know they are surprised to find me working there, but I don't see anything that strange about it. It's a job and it's something I like. That's what I tell them."

In turn, Olkewicz was just as surprised about what he found at the jail.

"You know the stereotype you see in the movies," he said. "The old, fat guards, spitting tobacco and bossing around the prisoners.And cell blocks miles long with bars and guy yelling at each other.

"It's not like that all. The deputies are good and a lot of them have come from other law enforcement jobs. And there are no bars at this jail. The prisoners have rooms, like dorm rooms, and we lock them in electronically at night."

Yes, he works nights. There are three round-the-clock shifts and he takes his turn at every one.

And, no, he hasn't had to beat up any prisoners -- another of those movie stereotypes -- although he did have to firmly point the way to the cell for one inmate who suddenly decided he'd rather be somewhere else.

"Knowing that I am a pro football player probably helps me," he said. "I guess they don't want to test me that much.

"But really, there isn't that much threat of violence in there. These guys are smart enough to know that they can only hurt themselves by doing something stupid like that. Why make it worse for themselves, like getting more time or being placed in isolation, just by doing something stupid with a guard?"

But just to be sure, Olkewicz and the other guards are briefed fully each day before they start a shift. They are made aware of the new inmates, the possible trouble areas, difficulties on the last shift. Those prisoners with drug problems and ones who have just been sentenced are potential powder kegs.

"I really never feel in danger in there," Olkewicz said. "I suppose there could be some, but you get used to it. It becomes like any job, although each day something always comes up to make it different."

The position also has reenforced his desire to make law enforcement a career when his playing days are over. But whether that means more offseasons in Fairfax is another question.

At first, I said I would be back here for sure next year," he said, "but now I'm not sure. It's like I don't really have any break between the season and this job and training camp. It may be taking too much out of me.

"Besides," he added, "trying to stop Tony Dorsett may be the only guard work I need to do right now."