The way Pete Dawkins dashed through his Pentagon office, you'd have thought somebody had pushed, oh noooo, the button. Either that or Al Haig was on his way over to inspect Cap Weinberger's quarters. Or someone said Army needed a running back for this Saturday's war with Navy. Turns out it wasn't anything so scary. "Staff meeting -- I'll be back in five minutes," Dawkins said.

Pete Dawkins is 43 years old. A bit over 6 feet tall. Lean, athletic, in balance. Heavy in the shoulders. Brown-going-gray hair, trimmed just so. Chin high, eye contact solid, handshake firm. He won the Heisman Trophy for being a good halfback in 1958, when his coach said, "I can practically prophesy that someday Dawkins will be chief of staff." Bombs or Alexander the Great or Navy, you get the idea this guy can handle it.

Brig. Gen. Peter M. Dawkins is the Army's youngest general. His title: Deputy Director, Strategy, Plans and Policy. He works for a four-star general who is a deputy chief of staff for operations and plans. In the labyrinthine complexity of an Army organization chart, Dawkins is just another name in little type -- a one-star kid on the way up but with a long way to go.

"We deal with everything from contingency planning for the rapid deployment force to what the Army ought to look like five years from now," Dawkins said, back in his office. "We develop strategy on, say, Southwest Asia or the Caribbean or NATO, or for the theater nuclear force negotiations with the Soviets."

When Roger Staubach talks about bombs and Pete Dawkins talks about bombs, they're not saying the same things.

Dawkins won the Heisman while captain of the U.S. Military Academy's last undefeated team. Staubach won it five years later at Navy. Nowadays we see Staubach a lot. He's the TV fellow asking people on the street corner how they spell relief. He did his tour of duty after graduation, keeping a hand in football at every port (we didn't lose a sub while Staubach quarterbacked at Pensacola). Then he did okay with some pro team in Texas.

So while Staubach grew famous in Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, Dawkins got lost in Vietnam and Korea, Fort Ord and Fort Campbell. Staubach got rich, Dawkins got medals. The last sighting of Dawkins came in 1972, when he surfaced in the national media as the ultimate soldier of America's new volunteer army: the t.t.u. -- tough, thoughtful, unarmed. He helped shape the volunteer force, insisting the Lombardi authoritarian manner wouldn't work on kids who resent nothing as much as an order to get a haircut. Longer hair in the Army is one of Dawkins' suggestions.

Elvis was a bigger deal in '58 than Pete Dawkins, but not in one house where the kid, a high school junior who didn't even play football, thought Dawkins was as good as it gets in this world. He was this good: the biggest deal at West Point is to be first captain of cadets because you're the boss of everybody; after that comes the football captain, followed by class president and then "star man," which means you rank academically in the top 5 percent of your class.

It's a big deal to reach two of those stations. Douglas MacArthur was first captain and a star man in 1903.

Pete Dawkins was first captain, football captain, class president and 10th in a class of 499.

Nobody did that before or since.

There's a Heisman television show coming up Saturday night, with the presentation of this year's hunk of bronze, and Bud Greenspan will have film showing how Pete Dawkins won his Heisman. The guy caught passes averaging 30.6 yards, he led Army in rushing, he signaled the plays to the Lonesome End, Bill Carpenter. In his spare time, he became a Rhodes Scholar.

There's a little picture on his office wall from his Oxford experience as a rugby player. He is sitting on a fellow's chest, one hand at the miscreant's throat latch, the other drawn back to punch his lights out. Such repartee is inevitable in rugby.

"He insisted on tackling me after I had passed the ball," Dawkins said, "and so we had several discussions of the rules. As I was about to punch the fellow, he smiled at me and he didn't have any teeth at all. Somehow or other, I couldn't punch a guy who had no teeth."

On the picture is the caption, "When I say one-eighth-inch tape, I mean one-eighth-inch tape!"

His staff at Fort Campbell had attached the caption as a going-away present this summer when Dawkins moved from chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division into his new job with the one star on his shoulders.

"I had expressed disgruntlement at what I thought was a lack of precision on a bar graph," Dawkins said, explaining. "I worked with them in detail to spruce it up. I wanted one-eighth-inch tape for the graph."

The competitive urge -- "a congenital flaw," the general confesses -- moves Dawkins to the tennis court once a week these days. Heskis, too, with his wife, Judi, and children Sean and Noel. He doesn't bring it up a lot, because he's sensitive to the football identity so long removed from the field, but Dawkins says he sees "striking similarities between a really top-flight military unit and a winning team. It's teamwork, in which you simply can't succeed unless you understand that only by each person doing his thing very well can the group succeed. They have to want to be part of something, and to go beyond what just their task is. All of the great plays, the game-winning plays, came about because somebody did something extra that they weren't supposed to do."

As for Army's recent football decline, the old grad said, "I don't feel good about it. But let me be quick to say, if I had a ready solution to reversing it, I would certainly not be sitting here keeping it a secret . . . Three things contributed to it: An unpopular war in Vietnam, an antiauthority mood across the country and the dramatic emergence of professional football . . . But now, the mood of the country has changed, I think, markedly. It's much more healthy and supportive of the academies."

When he could be a politician (the Senate has an old basketball player already) or a diplomat (PhD, Princeton, International Relations), Dawkins says he remains a career soldier because he likes the people he works with and he thinks this country ought to have a strong national defense.

"If there ever came a day that I didn't feel I could make some contribution personally to life, to make a difference in what the Army is and what it does, then I'd do something else," Dawkins said.

The Redskins could use a running back.

"Oops, I have to go," Dawkins said, smiling. "A four-star general is waiting for me."

Still smooth after all these years.