Terry Hermeling has had four knee operations since he started playing football, and now arthritis has begun to develop in the scarred joints.

He has suffered broken fingers, concussions, shoulder separations and so many minor injuries he can't remember all of them.

Since training camp last July, he has sprained his back, hurt both knees and had the tendons and ligaments of his left thumb ripped apart. He's playing with two pins in that thumb, one of which probably is broken in half.

But when the Redskins line up Sunday in St. Louis against the Cardinals, Hermeling will be in his usual spot as starting left tackle, doing as well as he can with a cast on his thumb that hinders his balance and affects his pass blocking.

This could be Hermeling's final game as a Redskin. He admits he is considering retirement seriously for the first time after a season of disappointment for both him and the team. At 34, his battered body may have endured all it can.

Hermeling is one of the last of a special breed on this club, a man who played an entire Super Bowl with a knee so damaged it required surgery two days later, a man who considers it essential that he keeps playing despite his injuries; otherwise, he'd be letting down his teammates.

He could be considered a walking football stereotype, the way he "plays hurt" and "ignores his injuries" and "toughs it out on game day." Coaches have spent years saying those things about players like Hermeling.

But classifying him that way would be demeaning. Hermeling has not jumped onto the field all these years to gain admiration from his coaches and fans. He has done it because he would have felt guilty if he hadn't. There is a toughness about the man that refuses to let him rest.

"I've had 11 great years in football," he said yesterday, "even with the injuries. I've enjoyed every second. I've been fortunate, I've always been able to overcome the injuries and still play. Maybe I've got a high tolerance of pain, I'm not sure. All I know is that if I was injured, I'd do anything I had to get ready. In this business, I think you are expected to play hurt.

"I was brought up that way here. Guys like Len Hauss and Walter Rock and John Wilbur. You'd see them play with more severe injuries than I had. aIf I didn't play, I'd feel like a dog next to them.

"Sure, things are changing. But I'm not knocking people who don't play if they are hurt. It's their body and they have to live with that body the rest of their life. It's a personal thing, something you have to decide yourself." o

Hermeling knows he will have physical problems in the future. He expects the arthritis to worsen and his hands always will have the mangled look of being attached to an offensive lineman's arms. But if he has any regrets, he doesn't talk about them.

On talent alone, there probably is no way Hermeling should have lasted this long. The knee problems reduced his quickness and mobility and he eventually switched from guard to tackle. He constantly had to block against more gifted opponents, but it was on those days that he played his best. He had a certain meanness and stubbornness that pushed him far beyond his capabilities.

"I always had my best games against the best players, people like Harvey Martin," he said. "I think once you have the techniques down, this game is 80 percent mental anyway. I'd hear about a guy and how he supposedly was better than me and it would make me mad. I had to prove that was wrong.

"The week of big games, I was hard to live with. I'd start preparing early. By the time the game started , I was excited, I was ready. I didn't want to get embarrassed out there. No way."

Hermeling once looked down at his right knee and saw the knee cap lodged in his thigh. He had ripped a tendon apart, allowing the cap to float. Maybe that's why he tends to dismiss his injuries this season, although they may have made this the most difficult year of his career.

The problems began in training camp, when he strained muscles in his lower back. Then his left knee, which has undergone one operation, started acting up. Against the Giants the second week of the schedule, he got his right leg, which has had three operations, caught in the artificial turf while blocking on a conversion try. The pile of blockers bent the leg underneath him, he felt the knee go and he got scared.

That was the knee with the tendon problem," he said. "Dr. Pat Palumbo operated twice to reconstruct the tendon and for a moment, I thought I had snapped it."

The tendon was safe but he had dislodged scar tissue. He sat out a week, returned to the lineup even though the knee felt worse every game and continued playing until the Cardinal contest.

"I don't remember when I hurt my thumb in that game," he said, "but it had to be pass blocking. They told me things already were torn and I just finished the job."

He underwent surgery so the pins could be put in place. He was back in the starting lineup two weeks later and played the whole game against Minnesota even though the cast fell apart in the first quarter, leaving the thumb unprotected.

"Sure it hurt," he said, "and I probably bent a pin in it. The thumb really got swollen," Jack Pardee finally replaced him with Fred Dean the next week and Hermeling probably would have sat out the rest of the season. But Dean hurt a knee in the first half against Dallas and Hermeling wound up facing his old adversary, Martin.

"He didn't beat me," Hermling said. "I just had a feeling I'd play that game. Just walking into Texas Stadium got be psyched up anyway."

Hermling paused, "I found out I never wanted to be a reserve. I'm no good watching. I've got to play. If I stay in this league, it has to be as a starter. But playing these last few weeks have proven to me I still can compete in this league. It was important for me to know that."

A dozen Redskins have the flu, including cornerback Lemar Parrish, who missed two days of practice, and fullback Clarence Harmon, who missed yesterday's workout. Punter Mike Connell also is sick, which could be a major problem since Washington does not have a backup punter. Pardee expects everybody to be able to play by Sunday. If Connell can't punt, quarterback Joe Theismann likely would take on that chore.