When the Minnesota Vikings reviewed the Redskins' depth chart for tonight's preseason game at RFK Stadium, they probably stumbled a bit when they reached the center spot. Instead of Dan Peiffer or Bob Kuziel being listed, the starter's name for Washington had an unfamiliar ring: Jeff Bostic.
Opponents aren't the only ones surprised. Bostic has won Coach Joe Gibbs' award as the "absolute, total shocker of training camp" over free agent tackle Joe Jacoby. Instead of being phased out of the team's plans during camp, as the coaching staff had expected, Bostic has clamped onto the starting center position.
"I don't think he's going to let go, either," said line coach Joe Bugel. "The way he's playing, he could be headed for the Hall of Fame."
Before Bostic is enshrined, he first has to prove he can hold up during the remaining three exhibition games, beginning with tonight's 7:30 contest with the Vikings. That's why he finds himself in the unfamiliar role as a center of attention.
"I was hoping to do well but I'll admit this is happening a lot faster than I thought it would," said Bostic, whose 1980 rookie season was confined to snapping for punts and field goals. "You always want to be a starter but you see who is ahead of you and you try to be realistic about it."
Bostic learned about the reality of life in the NFL last year. A lifetime center until his senior year at Clemson, when he became an all-ACC guard, he was ignored in the draft because he was small and his ability was questionable. After deciding to sign with Washington as a free agent, he suddenly changed his mind and became a Philadelphia Eagle. A month into camp, he became an ex-Eagle, rejoining the free agent ranks.
And that's where he might have stayed the rest of the year except for a series of events at Redskin Park. Veteran Ted Fritsch had mysteriously lost his ability to snap on kicks. After an embarrassing performance in the last preseason game against Tampa Bay, Washington cut him and brought in Bostic six days before the opener against Dallas, hardly the kind of welcoming committee a rookie wants in his pro debut.
But, except for a high snap to punter Mike Connell in the first quarter, Bostic withstood the Cowboy pressure well. He never made another bad snap that season in 147 more chances, while becoming a standout special teams player who began challenging Monte Coleman and Ike Forte as the first man down the field.
"That's what caught your eye," said Gibbs. "A guy has to have some quickness to make a snap and then get down field fast enough to make a tackle."
Still, the Redskins knew they had Peiffer returning as a starter and they picked another center, Russ Grimm, on the third round of the draft. Gibbs wondered if the club could afford to keep a snapper specialist instead of giving that role to their second-team center. He decided, finally, that, if possible, he would phase out the specialist, especially because he had no indication Bostic was an NFL-caliber center.
That it hasn't worked out as Gibbs thought is a credit to Bostic's tenacity. When both Peiffer and Kuziel were hurt early in camp and Grimm switched to guard after Fred Dean was injured, Bostic found himself starting. Everyone is fairly healthy now, but he refuses to let go.
"He's got a mean streak in him," Gibbs said. "You keep expecting him to fall down but, every time out, he keeps getting better and better. He's good on techniques and he has real quick feet. He doesn't like getting beat. He can run and he'll knock you over without blinking an eye."
Bostic weighs 250 pounds, but his rounded body doesn't look particularly strong. And his even-mannered disposition and baby face belie a mean streak. The players call him "Little Dough Boy" and "Poppin' Fresh" because they think he resembles the Pillsbury commercial character of those names.
And what does Bostic credit for this surprising change in his football life?
"I really never had a chance to show what I could do last year as a center. I came in late and they never had confidence in me," he said. "And I know some people just don't think I look like I can play. I've always been considered too small, even in high school. They all think you have to be 6-5 and 280. So I'm used to surprising people.
"I did it in college and I guess I'm doing it here, too. That's why I worked hard in the offseason to get better and come in here and challenge. I figured they might not want to keep around a snap specialist that much longer."
Bostic's brother, Joe, is a starting guard for St. Louis, but Jeff hasn't been able to tell him about his good fortunes in camp. It seems there's no phone in Joe's room at the Cardinal dorm. "The only way he'd know about what's happened to me is if our parents have told him," Bostic said.
Bostic and the other three greenhorns on the offensive line passed their first test last week against Kansas City, but the Viking front four will give them a greater challenge. Minnesota also should help Gibbs gauge the progress of the rest of his offense, which will be directed by quarterback Joe Theismann for as much as a half before he yields to rookie Tom Flick and then, possibly, veteran Mike Rae.
"The Vikings will keep the regulars in for a lot longer than most teams," Gibbs said. "Bud Grant believes in using these games to get ready for the season. And they will be a lot more sophisticated on offense than Kansas City was last week."
Minnesota will be starting a familiar figure to Washington fans at quarterback, Steve Dils. Last season, Dils replaced an injured Tommy Kramer and directed the Vikings to a 39-14 victory over the Redskins. Grant also will use Kramer.
Grant continues to make the transition to a younger team. Three players from the 1980 draft -- defensive tackle Doug Martin, cornerback Willie Teal and guard Brent Boyd -- will start this game, joining most of the regulars from a squad that won the Central Division title last year thanks to a 6-2 finish.