The chief enigma of the National Football League stares out with steely eyes from behind Rasputin's beard. As calculating and deliberate with his words as a defendant on the witness stand, Dan Fouts approaches social discourse with the demeanor of a Buddha.

With each new season, each new brace of records, his town awaits more news from the iceberg of Fouts' public persona. But it remains submerged.

He will not play the star. He shuns the role, and berates the obsequious.

"This game has nothing to do with individuals," he says. "We're too hung up on the star quality of things, on entertainment, of singling out people who have done well and people who have failed. Records should not be kept the way they're kept. They got records for everything. It's really getting kind of nebulous."

In locker rooms after games, Fouts gives what he gives, and those who know the routine of the San Diego Chargers know better than to ask for more.

Ed White, friend, teammate, seasonal neighbor: "Opening yourself up has been the demise of so many people. They start to believe the things they hear and read. Then, when it's over, they realize that they're just normal people, and that's kind of hard to take. Dan has seen that happen. He gets a lot of attention a lot of the time, and he's just trying to keep an even keel. It's a supersmart approach to life."

The San Diego fan has needed a heroic figure since Lance Alworth left. Because his team scores points in factors of 40, Dan Fouts has been designated. He has led the league in attempts, completions and yards gained the last two years. The Chargers have a record of 45-17 in his last 62 regular-season starts. In the last year, his team has been likened to the best offensive teams ever.

"I guess it's good for the offseason, that type of talk, the hot stove league and what not," he says, his gaze boring through the back of his questioner's head. "I'm sure it's all flattering, of course, but flattery is really useless."

These days, few bother to remember Fouts at one time backed up Jesse Freitas, now fumbling through a last gasp in a semipro league up the coast. Or that last year, the fans were booing his name, calling for replacement Ed Luther, now relegated to perennial big-dollar also-random.

What we know now about Dan Fouts is what he's done for us lately: consecutive 400-yard passing games recently; 71 points in two weeks over last year's Super Bowl teams, San Francisco and Cincinnati. And last Sunday, another 289 yards on 18 completions in a 44-26 rout of Baltimore.

For the season, Fouts has the highest ranking (97.5) of any passer in the NFL, completing 186 of 291 passes for 16 touchdowns helping the Chargers generate 452.4 yards a game, 330.3 of those through the air.

"I do know we've done some things that are pretty unique and outstanding," he said, "but the game has changed, too. It goes in cycles really--it seems to be 10-year cycles. Athletes are better today, defenses are better. Mentally, I think athletes are better; they have to be. It's a more elite crowd."

Not as elite as the crowd in which Fouts goes. He slips classifications with the deftness of an open-field sprinter.

He is one of the few strong antiunionists also willing to hold out for 10 weeks in a salary dispute.

During the season, he lives in a quiet, exclusive neighborhood north of the city, with a back patio landscaped by White, with tropical plants that screen out the world. In the offseason he lives in a house in Sisters, Ore., in the shadows of the Cascades, about 20 miles from Bend. He enjoys the absence of city, and enjoys his solitude. In local taverns, he's just another bearded man enjoying a beer and a cigar.

During the season, it's not as easy to divert the praise. He prefers to slough it off onto Coach Don Coryell, himself as mysterious as Fouts, but in a more comprehensible way. Coryell is possessed by the game; the story about Coryell goes that he showed up the morning after the strike was called fully expecting all his players to report.

"We have gifted receivers who have been put in a situation where they can take full advantage of those gifts," Fouts said. "That's Don Coryell. It's his system, and it's him, the individual. Whatever business he is in, he would have creative people all around him doing marvelous things with his system.

"We prepare more under him than under any other coaching staff I've been with. He is totally dedicated to it. He wants the best for himself and for his team. And he lets the people work that he has hired. He doesn't meddle in their affairs. That's not to say he doesn't add his input, but he doesn't screw it up like a lot of head coaches do."

But it always comes back to Fouts. A photograph taken during last Monday night's 50-34 defeat of Cincinnati shows a semicircle of players and coaches--including Coryell--listening intently as Fouts jabs a large forefinger into the air, making a point.

And during the strike, the Chargers practiced as regularly, with as much attendance, as any other team. The practices were organized and led by Fouts. He called the drills, he decided the length of the practices. His was the team's one voice--a nonunion voice leading a union through the hard times of a strike.

"Dan's ability to motivate is through doing it--getting it done," White said. "Rugged and down to earth. He's the type of person you have to be to be a successful quarterback."

Fouts: "You stand behind that center, and you call the cadence, you're leading--it's the natural position you play. When you're out in the middle of the field there are no coaches out there. There's nobody telling you what to do. There's just 11 guys, and the one guy talking is the leader."

There are exceptions to Fouts the Buddha, flaws in the protective mechanisms. For example, despite a Howard Slusher-negotiated salary, and the prospect of another just around the corner--this is his option year--he would welcome more endorsements, but is fated thus far to play in a town that cuts the ego down to size. Teams get commercials. Teams get endorsements.

"This town is dead," he said. "The fans are more team-oriented. 'Charger power' is more centered on the Chargers than one player. Well, my door's not closed. But they're not beating that door down. Which is okay. The economy is rough."

But it is within this economy that the San Diego Padres just granted 34-year-old Steve Garvey enough money to finance his first Senate campaign two or three times over. Fouts is 31, and he's the best, and Slusher is his attorney. For the moment, discussion of Fouts' approaching salary negotiations is muted, and mostly whispered, like rumors of an impending natural disaster.

"I can see it now," said one Charger this week, standing in the parking lot outside San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. "Howard's gonna back that old 18-wheeler up here, open it up, and say, 'Okay, load it up.' "

On this subject, Fouts is terse, but emphatic.

"First of all, remember that the player has no leverage. The only leverage the player has is to not play at all. So it's up to the owner, then, to keep that player in that town, to keep that player playing."

There is one subject that brings a small smile to Fouts' face: his game. He is wrapped up in it, swathed in its aura of carnival delight. And in weak moments, he does allow his pleasure to slip to the surface.

"It's one of the best forms of entertainment going. People enjoy it. I do take exception to Thursday night games--I think it's a mistake. It's not good for the players at all. It's your basic goose-that-laid-the-golden-egg theory. You don't want to kill the players off. But it is entertainment.

"It's addictive, too. I don't think it's addictive to me because it's my job. Can you be addicted to be something that's your job? I don't know. But I enjoy it more each week. The closer you get to the end of your career, the more you enjoy things, because you realize it really is not quite a part of the real world you're dealing with here, it's something special."

Does he ever allow himself to consider that he might never win the championship? Or is his vision so tunneled that it sees only one denouement to this story?

"Oh yeah, sure, I can see not winning. If it happens, I'll be able to say I gave it my best shot."

Stop. The stare again.

"But right now, I'd say that would mean that I'd failed."