Gary (Big Hands) Johnson, star Charger defensive tackle, received a death threat and that threat was evidently acted upon in a melodramatic prelude to the AFC championship loss to the Raiders, San Diego Coach Don Coryell revealed yesterday.

The story begins Nov. 30 in San Diego (Chargers 22, Eagles 21) when Johnson tackles Philadelphia quarterback Ron Jaworski roughly enough to draw a penalty. Next, Johnson receives a retributive threat on his life; Charger management does not make it public. For several days thereafter, game police patrol the stadium in the vicinity of the team meeting and practice facilities. That's all, until --

Saturday, day before Oakland and San Diego vie for a Super Bowl berth, leaving final practice, Charger mates John Jefferson and Gregg McCrary notice the back wheels on Johnson's van wobbling dangerously and call it to the big lineman's attention. Johnson finds the lugs within one turn of falling off. Someone has loosened them and replaced the hubcaps.

Johnson, his wife and 3-year-old son are taken by police to a hotel that night and kept under surveillance.

Sunday, game day: Johnson plays the first half, but sits out the second half. McCrary notices him on the bench. "What's the matter, Hands?" "Oh, I'm sick." Upset stomach? From anxiety?

Johnson's replacement, Wilbur Young, with Oakland Killing the clock in the closing minutes, jumps offside on a third-and-five Raider play. The drive is sustained and Oakland preserves its seven-point lead. If Johnson had been in there, who knows?

Talk about melodrama. What if the Super Bowl were a Charger-Eagle rematch!

And where would Joe Gibbs be today?