"We are the game." NFL players to their bosses, and us

"Remember who you are." -- Ed Shirley, to himself

That was nice of the National Football League players and owners to keep their greed game in overtime a while longer, so the Marine Corps Marathon could get the lavish splash it deserves. Yesterday was especially vivid to Washingtonians, for we were served enormous helpings of sweet and sour sport.

Athletes by the thousand hustled and hobbled about our streets, but The Only Game in Town stayed shut down. After seven weeks, seven Redskinsless Sundays, more and more of us are finding the NFL not nearly so addictive as we'd once imagined.

A marathon now and then helps.

What it does is set a person to thinking. For some, mentally is the best way to experience a marathon. Let the brain do the jogging as waves of the wonderful and wondrous slip by, some hellbent to win but many bent like hell just trying to finish. Since it wasn't possible to do a double this year, the marathon and the Redskins at RFK Stadium, the contrasts came even sharper into focus.

Both are celebrations of intent, discipline and determination. In football, there may only be five minutes of action, when somebody is running or catching, blocking or tackling. In the marathon, it took lots of the virtually 10,000 entrants about five minutes just to get to the starting line.

Those were the back-of-the-pack stragglers, who started so far behind that their total distance was closer to 27 miles than 26, who in fact give the Marine event its character. Among marathoners, even winners aren't great.

With the Redskins, 55,035 pay as much as $20 for tickets to watch no more than 22 behemoths beat on one another at a time. Runners literally pay for their agony, the Marines getting $10 from entrants. Nobody charges admission to a marathon, not because the sport is so pure but because nobody would pay to watch.

One of the neat things about marathons is watching the watchers. No negative rooting. No yelling for the quarterback's scalp. Everything is upbeat.

"Yeah for the ladies," a woman chants as the pack pours past the six-mile mark.

I was searching for friends at this point, right hand shading my eyes in what apparently seemed a salute. Or it did to one marine in the Marine.

"Good morning, sir," he snapped, casually, cheerfully, as though he'd gone six steps instead of six miles. I thought the sun only rose over golf courses before 10.

Introductions are big in the NFL. Brief and efficient.

In the Marine, everybody gets equal nonattention. The best place to watch the start is a small overpass filled with holly bushes several hundred yards down the road, just before a sign that says: "Speed Checked by Radar."

To be brutally honest, the rapid runners could have grabbed a cab to National Airport and been close to Kansas City by the time some of their sporting brothers and sisters limped under the finish sign.

The start is special. It's the last time everyone smiles. Toward the overpass comes one wave of human energy that would fill football field after football field, heads bobbing, shirts emblazoned "Run for Guilt" and "Bob's TV."

A gang of marines ran in formation; several wheelchair jockeys flew by, as did one man pushing a buddy in a wheelchair; another man trotted by wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and tie; still another had a football under his left arm and an American flag in his right armpit.

"Lemmings going to sea," a skeptic said.

Not quite.

The Marine Marathon uses both sides of the road near that underpass, for its major and minor event. The secondary show grabs your heart, it being for Special Olympians, some of whom are jumping for joy as they move beside a strapping Marine escort.

Fairly or unfairly, as the NFL strike passed its 48th day, the impression that both players and owners would blindside a nun for a $5 bill lying in the street takes shape. A reasonable man, mediator Sam Kagel, has fled the talks for the second time.

They're still millions apart, we're told.

"Nothing new in the (latest) offer," the Detroit Lions' Stan White insists. "I don't see any reason to see any hope in what's happening."

Hope is what lined most faces in the beginning of the Marine Marathon; fatigue furrows were there near the end, getting deeper and deeper with each step up a hundred-yard hill maybe a half-mile from the finish that seemed absolutely mountainous.

"First time I can ever remember actually grimacing," Ed Shirley said. "The whole course is so level; then . . .

This was Shirley's first marathon. He is one of those delightful men that friends care enough about to pick on. And in a Rockville saloon called the Tap Room Friday he was a substitute for a staple of sport. With no NFL games to bet, a small pool was formed on how far Shirley's slender legs would carry him yesterday.

The farthest he'd ever gone in training was 19 miles. Nearly died, too, he admitted. Because he seems kin to Charlie Brown at times, there were jokes about his being tripped by the 63-year-old woman or drowning in a water station.

He took it in good spirit.

Seriously, he talked about his emotions getting the better of him during the race, about possibly going so fast to impress the Georgetown crowd that he would eventually fail to finish. He'd planned on planting a friend out on the course to remind him: "Remember who you are."

Trying to do too much, to go beyond what was possible, Shirley might well have fallen before his goal. He never saw the friend; he stayed his course anyway, and finished. It's a lesson the NFL owners and players could learn. By grabbing -- and denying -- too much, the players and owners are hurting themselves enormously. Yesterday, more than 11,500 Ed Shirleys were the game.