Harold McLinton was the rarest breed of athlete, one who gave his sport infinitely more than he took. His position, middle linebacker, is among the most glamorous in football, yet quiet caring is what made him so special. You might pay dearly to watch some players; McLinton was the one you would dearly love to have had in your home for dinner.

"He would always say how you should cherish each day," said Brig Owens, "about not taking anything for granted, about how it's tough sometimes but that you've got to pull together and keep moving."

There was a unique bond between McLinton and Owens with the Redskins, for they were the two players during most of the '70s who seemed most publicly vulnerable. Somebody always was popping into Redskin training camp ready to replace them.

"We used to boost each other," Owens said, "We'd say: 'Well who are THEY gonna to bring in this year? And who are WE gonna send home?"

Although he sent rivals home for a decade, McLinton's Redskin career was not overly distinguished. A fan might prod his mind for hours and not recall more than a single time when McLinton made a memorably positive play. He was the young linebacker Fran Tarkenton embarrassed in New York in 1970, the middle linebacker who cost the team five yards in the Super Bowl on a trick play that failed, the one player whose name was misspelled on a game jersey.

Yet McLinton's is the next Redskin number that ought to be retired, the next name that ought to be added to Washington's sports hall of fame. I cannot imagine an athlete giving more of himself to an area than Harold McLinton. That is why next season there should be an unusual addition to that mezzanine-ring of stars inside RFK Stadium.

If families still attend NFL games -- and prices keep making that prohibitive -- fathers should be forced to explain to their sons why this relatively obscure player is up there with Sonny Jurgensen and Sammy Baugh, Frank Howard, Pauline Betz Addie and George Preston Marshall.

Generation after generation, children in sporting Washington should be reminded of McLinton, that he was the embodiment of sport, spirited and selfless, a fine player but a nearly unique person.

Every town ought to take time to remember the athletes who gave them as much inspiration as pleasure. Almost none do. Sometime we ought to honor a player who has touched as many lives as he has hit home runs or scored touchdowns. Adding Harold McLinton to its athletic heroes would give Washington a touch of class.

Through him, we could think of others like him.

"If you looked at him, lived with him and fought alongside him," said a Redskin assistant coach, George Dickson, "you knew he had all the characteristics of manliness. There was absolutely no one who had more of a team concept than Harold McLinton. He'd do anything to help the team, to the point of holding a (practice) dummy for somebody.

"The year we were sinking (1978) he got up (in a team meeting) and made a very moving speech. If anybody on this team were right now to ask: 'Harold, what can I do for you?' he'd say: 'Give me your best. I gave you my best.'

"He was a lot of man."

"It's almost one of those things where you think: 'if only he hadn't done something extra,'" said Ed Garvey, executive director of the Nfl Players Association. "If he hadn't gone to Lorton that night." Garvey was silent for a moment, then said: "It's one of those fatalistic things that drives you crazy."

McLinton always was doing something extra -- and nearly always without payment beyond self gratification. He was the hardest-hitting Redskin and also the softest touch. That is why Washington responded to his tragedy with such overwhelming love.

"The biggest loser," George Allen said over the phone from Los Angeles, "is the Washington community."

Allen savored one McLinton story. The Redskins were in St. Louis for the next-to-last game of the '77 season, needing victory to have any chance for the playoffs. They won, when Eddie Brown made a spectacular interception near the end of the game. Allen chuckled at what happened before the game.

"I'd emphasized the night before at a team meeting how we couldn't let the weather affect us," he said. "It was cold, with snow on the ground -- and St. Louis has a way of being damp that makes it even worse. I told them this was Redskin weather, that we never lost in the rain and other adverse conditions.

"To make the point a bit clearer, I said at that meeting that the next day, just as the Cardinals were coming onto the field for warmups, I'd like for someone to jump into a (sideline) snow drift. To act like an Eskimo, like he was having fun instead of being bothered by the weather.

"I said that to relax the team. But the next day, just as the Cards came on the field, Harold took a run at what he thought was a snow drift. It was mostly a big chunk of ice, but he ran right into the thing. Almost hurt himself. That was Harold.

"And he never felt sorry for himself (when Allen brought in players to challenge for his position). If he got benched, it bothered him. But he'd work harder instead of complain. He always was doing something to help somebody else, on the field, in the locker room, in a meeting, in the community."

McLinton's press was not the most positive, surrounded as he was by defensive all-pros. Literally the man in the middle, he was easy to blame for many defensive problems. Few players accept criticism well. McLinton took more than his share -- and actually went out of his way to make reporters who wrote harsh stories feel comfortable.

"Don't worry, I'll still talk with you," he would say. "I know you're only doing the job the best way you know how."

McLinton's was a fierce pride. When other Redskins on the offense and defense would wear odd numbers in practice -- a linemen, for instance, with 22 or a defensive back with 97 -- McLinton almost always kept his own. No. 53. His number and his position until somebody took it from him.

The Redskins found better middle linebackers before last season and McLinton left without a fuss. His leaving us Friday night, after another courageous fight, reflects the sort of personal intensity he would appreciate. It seemed important to him that the hardest hit of his life be to the heart of his community.