Rafael Septien, one of the leading kickers in the National Football League, says the Dallas Cowboys "did me a favor" by not telling him until the 1981 season was over that he needed an operation for a hernia.

The Cowboys' doctors and Coach Tom Landry knew early in the season that Septien had a hernia, but maintained all year that the only injury he was suffering from was a pulled groin muscle, Septien said from his home in Dallas.

Landry could not be reached for comment this week. But he was quoted in Sunday's Dallas Morning News as saying, "I became aware some time during the season that it was probably a hernia. Doctors said it was something that could be handled after the season. In that case, you go ahead and let him play. You tell him and he worries and doesn't kick well. We just didn't tell him.

"It's no big deal. It was my responsibility to decide what to do once I had the opinion of the doctors. It's nothing to me. If I had to do it again, I'd do the same thing."

Team doctor James Pat Evans could not be reached for comment.

Septien did not learn that he had a hernia until the day after the Cowboys lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game, when Evans told him he would need surgery, he said.

Septien made the disclosure about his injury at a fund-raiser in Albuquerque Friday night for New Mexico gubernatorial candidate Bill Sego.

In introducing Septien, Sego mentioned that the Cowboy kicker was recovering from hernia surgery. Pressed for details afterward, Septien said the Dallas team had withheld information from him, but that he was not angry about it.

"Everybody, Landry included, knew I had a hernia. They've admitted it," Septien said. "But they just told me, 'You pulled a groin.' Then when the season is all over, they change their minds and tell me I have a hernia, too, and I have to have an operation."

By waiting for surgery until the offseason, Septien ran the risk of a strangulated hernia, according to Dr. Robert Kerlan, a noted sports physician. But, Kerlan also said, "Hundreds of thousands of people are walking around with hernias and wait years before doing anything about them." If Septien had not also been suffering from a groin pull, the hernia probably would have bothered him little, Kerlan said.

"Even if they had told me, I would have kept playing," Septien said. "You cannot afford to be hurt because then they get somebody else."

Under the NFL players' contract, teams do not have to disclose information to players about their injuries and can refuse players access to their medical records, according to Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL Players Association.

Garvey said Septien's revelation that the Cowboys had withheld information from him was not extraordinary. He said teams withhold information about injuries "all the time," although he declined to give any examples.

The players' association is asking that players have a voice in choosing team physicians and have access to their medical records, Garvey said.

Septien, who was operated on seven weeks ago, does not plan to take any legal action against the Cowboys. In fact, he said, the injury actually helped his kicking.

"I think it (the injury) may have helped me because I was concentrating on kicking smoothly to reduce the pain and I couldn't pay attention to outside things," he said.

Septien said he pulled a groin muscle lifting weights in training camp. He missed two preseason games with the injury but played in all 18 of the Cowboys' regular-season and playoff games.

The five-year NFL veteran had his best season, making 22 of his first 24 field-goal attempts and setting team records for most field goals and highest percentage.

A spokesman for the American Medical Association in Chicago said that while it may have been bad medical practice for Cowboy doctors to withhold information about Septien's condition, it was not unethical.