Mike Dolan knows how it is to be an underdog. Dolan was a center and defensive guard for Gonzaga High School in Washington in the days when Gonzaga still tried to compete in the Metro Conference, against powers like St. John's De Matha and Carroll.

Now Dolan is the starting center for a Navy team that enters Saturday's televised contest at Seattle as a 10-point outsider against nationally ranked Washington. If the outlook is grim, well, that just gets Dolan's juices flowing faster.

"It's a challenge to go against somebody as big as Washington, 18th in the country and a real power," Dolan said. "It's an opportunity for us to show we can play with some of the top teams."

A center must create his own measures of achievement; recognition usually comes only from errors -- a botched snap, a holding penalty, a defender breezing by to make a key tackle. Dolan gets his satisfaction from a job well done, even if only he, the opposing nose guard and the two coaches are aware of it.

"When the play is called in the huddle, I know I have to do a certain thing and it's satisfying to do it right, to see a first down, or to watch a back going downfield and know he made it because I threw a block," Dolan said. "There's a good feeling after the game, especially if you win. Regardless, you're with your buddies; the offensive line works as a unit and sticks together."

Unfortunately for Dolan and Navy fans, the Mids' offensive line has come unglued in recent weeks. Six guards and tackles will miss the Washington game, forcing several adjustments that promise reduced efficiency.

Dolan knows all about injuries. He needed knee surgery in the spring of 1978, prior to his sophmore season, and was not fit to play until the Holiday Bowl, when he made a brief appearance against Brigham Young. He saw enough action behind Rick Bott last year to earn a letter, then was felled in the spring by an injury to his other knee. At no time did he consider quitting football.

"It's frustrating when you think you're getting somewhere, then kaboom -- you're back on the ground floor," Dolan said. "You need incentive to get back where you were.

"The first time I was a freshman, I was young and I knew I had plenty of time to come back. This past spring, I felt I had come too far to chuck it in."

Saturday on their TV screens millions of persons will watch Dolan, the guy who refused to quit, who kept struggling against adversity. If he's lucky, none of them, other than friends and relatives, will pay him any notice. l