Steve Dils was walking through the locker room door 10 minutes before kickoff yesterday when Jerry Burns, the Minnesota Viking offensive coordinator, walked up beside him and said quietly: "You're starting."
Dils, who had spent the week quarterbacking the Vikings' first team while starter Tommy Kramer sat out with a dislocated ring finger and a jammed thumb, felt his stomach churning as he jogged onto the field.
"I was pumped up, really nervous," he said. "That's probably why I missed my first four passes. I was overthrowing because I was trying too hard."
Dils settled down after those four passes. His stomach stopped churning and his arm began pumping. Before it was finished he had completed 18 of 29 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, and the Vikings had embarrassed the Redskins, 39-14, on a dark day in RFK Stadium.
For the Vikings (4-5), the victory came after two weeks without a touchdown and a week without knowing who their quarterback would be. Dils, a second-year man from Stanford, had thrown eight passes in the NFL prior to yesterday.
"We all had confidence in Steve, though," wide receiver Ahmad Rashad said. "We knew from practice that he could play. It wasn't like we were sayng, 'Tommy's hurt and now we have to go with the dogs.'"
Dils threw to his backs early; then as the Redskin defense moved up to shut that off, he began throwing to his deep men. Before the day was over he had hit six different receivers and put the Vikings into the middle of the race in the weak NFC Central Division.
"It helped that I had all day long to throw most of the time," Dils said. "The offensive line did a super job. Having time helped my confidence a lot. "As the game went on, I got more and more confident. I just felt like we could move whenever we wanted to toward the end."
Dressing next to Dils, Kramer found himself in the ironic position of being crowded out of his locker by reporters who wanted to talk to the other guy. "It's a switch, isn't it?" Kramer said, laughing. "I could have played. Coach Grant made the decision. I didn't know about it until we were walking up the tunnel to go onto the field.
"Steve succeeded out there today because he's got courage and he's got confidence. He knew he could do the job and he did it."
Out of uniform, Dils, 24, is hardly the type of athlete who strikes fear into opposition hearts. He is 6 feet 1, 190 pounds and spends a good deal of time combing his thinning brown hair forward.
But like most Stanford quarterbacks, he is precocious beyond his years and experience because he spent his college career reading defenses from a pro set and throwing the ball 35 to 40 times a game.
"I think a quarterback who's played at Stanford has an advantage coming into the pros because he's seen all the defenses you can possibly see, because he's learned to throw from the pro set and because he hasn't had to learn the veer or anything like that," Dils said. "I played for Bill Walsh at Stanford (Walsh now coaches the San Francisco 49ers) and that's sort of like getting PhD training in quarterbacking."
Dils was not unfamiliar with the situation he found himself in yesterday. As a Stanford junior, backing up all-American Guy Benjamin, he had to enter a key game against UCLA when Benjamin was hurt. Stanford won, 32-28, when Dils drove the team 80 yards in the last two minutes for the winning score.
Down the hall, Mike Kruczek, the backup Redskin quarterback, was remembering being in a similar position to Dils several times when he was backing Terry Bradshaw up at Pittsburgh.
"There, though, they always tried to let me know at least 24 hours before the game if I was going to start," Kruczek said. "The only time they didn't do that was against San Diego my rookie year. They told me just before the game started and I had my worst game ever. It's tough when you're surprised. g
"I thought he looked kind of tight early," Kruczek continued. "He was looking for the rush first, then his receivers. Once he stopped doing that though he really did the job. Definitely a big league quarterback."