While punter Mike Bragg was completing his 12th year as a Redskin last season, Mike Connell was paying the bills by selling steel in Cincinnati.

Connell hadn't always been a salesman. In 1978, he was the rookie punter for the San Francisco 49ers. Considering the inconsistency of his snapper, he had a decent season and he figured on many more.

But the 49ers felt otherwise. They cut him. The date is etched in his memory. Just a little over a year ago: Aug. 14, 1979. The front office was cleaning house and he was caught in the sweep-up.

So Connell turned to the salesman's job. But on Sundays, he would watch Bragg and other pro punters studying their form and making mental notes he still remembers today. He also made a decision he hasn't forgotten.

"I don't want to be a steel salesman the rest of my life," he told his wife.

Instead, he wants to be an NFL punter again. He would like to punt for the Redskins in place of Mike Bragg, who has been on the Washington roster longer than any other current player. Bragg has lasted so long because he has withstood almost yearly challenges from rivals such as Connell. And he sees no reason why this trend should suddenly change.

But Connell does. He is kicking the ball long and high and he feels strong and durable. If he keeps kicking like this, he says, how can the Redskins not keep him?

Two others felt the same way when they came to training camp a month ago. But veteran Mike Michel had one of those nightmare afternoons in a scrimmage against Baltimore, when he shanked two kicks. And rookie Allen White practiced so much with his bare-footed style that he wore out his leg. Both were quietly cut.

Now there is just two left to conduct a daily, lonely battle of style and concentration and accuracy.

Kicking is a lonely business anyway. Punters spend long hours in camp by themselves while the rest of the team goes through drills or conducts long night meetings. They kick for a while before practice and again afterward. In between, there is a lot of time to think.

Bragg has one advantage. He and placekicker Mark Moseley have survived the monotony of other camps by training together as much as possible, a routine they still continue. But with Michel and White gone, Connell has even more minutes to himself.

But even companionship doesn't take away all the pressure from the incumbent. "You realize what is going on," Bragg said. "It's human nature to respond to competition. I've been through it before but each time it's a challenge.

"I'm approaching this like any other camp. I've done a lot of conditioning work and not a lot of kicking. Maybe I made a mistake early by doing too much conditioning and not enough kicking. Then I tried to compensate by overkicking.

"But I feel good. Now I can start working on my timing and getting things together."

Bragg is a realist. Twice, he felt his string with the Redskins had run out, once when challenged by David Beverly and then even more so two years ago when George Roberts had a marvelous training camp. Beverly now punts for Green Bay and Roberts for Miami.

"I thought I was gone when George was here," Bragg said. "He really kicked well. But I think I still can kick. I haven't lost it yet. I just have to worry about myself and not about anything else. Mike is a fine kicker. But the Redskins know what I can do. I think I've shown that over the years."

That perhaps is the biggest obstacle Connell has to overcome. He not only is kicking against the Bragg of this camp, but against the Bragg of the past -- and all those pressure punts and coffin-corner boots and satisfactory hang time and distance. So what if Bragg was not as consistent last year as the Redskins wanted? He has 11 other seasons of solid, dependable work as a calling card.

With Dallas facing Washington in the opening game, the Redskins would have to be sure -- very sure -- of Connell. They have seen Bragg against the Cowboys. They know he can withstand the added pressure. But can Connell?

"Yes, I know I can," Connell said. "That's one thing the year out did for me. I got myself together mentally and physically. The mental part was the most important. That's so vital in punting.

"I've gotten where I don't let anything get to me. No matter how well Mike kicks in practice or no matter what else is going on around me, I can ignore it and just concentrate on what I have to do."

What Connell wants is time and opportunity. He needs as many kicks as possible under game condition to show the Redskins his consistency. But there are only three exhibition games left and Bragg, too, must do some kicking.

"I found out how important it can be to kick in game," Bragg said. "When I was competing against Beverly, we were splitting it by halves. But we'd run the ball so much in the first half that I'd never get a chance to punt. He was doing all the kicking.

"I finally said something about it and George Allen (then Redskin coach) told me he was bringing me out of retirement. In the next game, I got off a 52-yarder. That got things going. From then on. I thought I was going to do the job."

Connell never got that much of a chance in last year's training camp with the 49ers. He was shocked to find five other punters competing against him. And he was stunned when he was demoted to third string and then cut without kicking in a game.

"The guy who replaced me, Dan Melville, averaged 37 yards last year," Connell said. "He was last in the conference. I was 10th the year before (with a 37.3 mark). I didn't see how they improved themselves. But the new regime out there wanted its own people, I guess. I could see it coming when they had all those new guys in camp."

Off their work in the first preseason game against Baltimore, the two currently are in a standoff. Connell got off a 46-yarder. Bragg a 44-yarder which benefited from a gracious roll. That has been Bragg's only live attempt in camp.

But Connell cannot win by just being even. He must clearly defeat Bragg before he will be rewarded a roster spot. And even he isn't sure what will determine a clean knockout.

"I know that I am aiming for consistency," he said. "If I deliver 4.7 to 4.8 hang times and average 40 yards with nothing but fair catches, then I've done what I can do. The rest will be up to them.

"In San Francisco, I averaged 37 yards and I must have had nine snaps that were on the ground. Once we got the center straightened out, I did fine. Here, that's no problem. You've got the best people in the business in front of you. That has to really help your confidence.

And what if Bragg, once again, at age 34, wins this latest punting contest?

"I know I'm not going back to being a salesman," Connell said. "After what I've done here, I know I can punt for someone in this league."