In his youthful fantasies, he grew to be as big as Jim Brown and as elusive as Gale Sayers. Nobody ever has; nobody ever will. Being Terry Metcalf, though, has not been all that bad. Few players have been cussed louder by Redskin fans or fussed over more by Redskin coaches.
In George Allen's defense, it was a cardinal rule not to surrender a long run. That little St. Louis Cardinal fluttered though the best tacklers at times, appearing before them and then vanishing quicker than an evil thought in a minister's mind.
"First time I came to RFK Stadium, first play of the second half I took a 75-yard quick pitch and went all the way," he was saying the other day, sitting on a bench after practice with, of all teams, the Redskins, and letting the memories flow."Perfect blocking. I was untouched for 75 yards. Makes it kinda easy for a running back.
"A Monday night, again in RFK Stadium I think, I ran the opening kickoff back 94 yards." He remembers tough and controversial games, some verbal intimidation from Verlon Biggs, the occasional paranoia during practice when Allen's spies allegedly were focusing in from an upper-story window of a hotel across the street from Busch Stadium.
Immediately, Metcalf knew that at 5-foot-10, shoulder level to Brown, he belonged in the National Football League. His first regular season play as a Cardinal, in 1973, called for him to block a Philadelphia Eagle linebacker -- and he actually lifted the hulking fellow and carried him, sack-like for several yards.
He was rewarded a few plays later by getting to carry the ball and surprised friend and foe. The Eagles were startled that he dashed and darted 50 yards. Those who knew and admired him in college were mildly shocked that humans could tackle him.
"A lotta times I don't remember what I do when I do it," he said.
"I saw him get flipped, end over end, once in college (at Long Beach State), land on his feet and keep on running," said Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard.
In Minnesota once, there was a Viking crouched a few yards between Metcalf and the end zone. The Viking lurched forward and tackled a handful of air; by that time Metcalf had hurdled him and scored.
"The strangest thing that ever happened to me in a game was my first year in Toronto (1978)," he said. "I was running the play, a guy had me by the jersey, not the tearaway kind, and I spun around and lateraled the ball back to the quarterback. He threwit downfield to the tight end for a touchdown."
"Yeah. The linemen up there can go downfield. At the time, I didn't know that. Kind of a shock to me."
A few Metcalf meanders through opposition defnses and the Redskins faithful can get over the shock of seeing him in burgundy and gold. He will be forgiven with the same enthusiasm given Calvin Hill when he came to the Redskins from Dallas via the World Football League: "Thank God he's with us."
Still, there is doubt about how to regard Metcalf, in what tense. The Cardinals, after all, insisted he was damaged beyond hope three years ago, when they refused to pay him what he believed he was worth and waved good riddance as he trotted off to Canada.
As a businessman, Metcalf could not resist Toronto's offer. As a football player, Metcalf was hampered by Toronto's not having enough decent players around him. The Redskins are not overstocked wtih blockers but seem as pleased with Metcalf as he is to be with them.
The coaches are surprised to the extent that Metcalf, 29, seems quicker than he did during a tryout at Redskin Park a few months ago.
"He's still got it," said Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator. "More speed than we've ever had." He laughed. "Maybe we'll go outside this year for a change."
And into the end zone regularly for a change.
If Metcalf has not slowed too much and has overcome a habit of fumbling, he should do nicely as a spot player. He is one of four NFL players to account for touchdowns five ways (rushing, receiving, punt return, kickoff return and passing) in one season.
"The halfback option is something I've been doing since I was a kid," he said.
Even in his prime with St. Louis, Metcalf was a better runner when he did not run too often.
"At halftime of some games, he'd be shot," said Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, a Cardinal aide during Metcalf's best seasons. "He'd lost so much fluid. This would be during games on hot artificial turf, because he's trying to score on every play."
And trying every moment of practice. That is one of the rasons Gibbs wanted Metcalf, the pride that shows in running every training camp handoff 20 yards more than necessary. As he did as a Cardinal, Metcalf spends much of his off-the-field time here with 20 pounds of weights strapped to his chest, the better to more resemble a Lear Jet with the ball.
He is not uncomfortable playing for a once-bitter rival, Metcalf says, for the practical reason that it gives him two chances to embarrass the Cardinals this season. They might not recognize him on sight, for Mike Nelms apparently has Redskin rights to his familiar No. 21.
Metcalf could make a fuss about that, and he does wear a jersey with that number and his name on it during practice. He seems willing to quietly accept another number, probably 26.
"My wife said maybe it's time for a change, anyway," he said. "I been wearing 21 for eight years now. I don't know."
His job description with the Redskins still is uncertain. Healthy and spry, he can do anything. Without his quickness, he can do next to nothing. How fast can he go, and for how long?
And if he'd grown to his dream size?
"At 6-2 and 210," he said, "if I'd stayed as quick, I guess I'd have been a monster."