Bobby Hammond thought his best game as a professional was also his last.

As a running back for the Washington Redskins, Hammond gained 135 yards on 17 carries and caught three passes for 22 yards in the last game of the 1980 season. The following summer, Joe Gibbs released him.

"I retired after Gibbs let me go," said Hammond. "I mean I played a great game there and they let me go in camp. You tell me; I still can't explain it. It was a numbers game. Gibbs traded for Joe Washington and Terry Metcalf and he only wanted two halfbacks. That left me in the cold.

"After I retired, I had some feelers from other teams, but I wasn't interested in another numbers game. I was tired of that."

Hammond, his wife and two young sons were not unhappy saying goodbye to professional football. He took a job with the Pony sportswear company, signing players to endorse its products. The family's life in Bayside, Queens, N.Y., was comfortable and Hammond "didn't ache to play football."

"I was lucky to make the transition from football player to executive without any problem," he said.

But after four years with the Giants, two with the Redskins and more than a year away from football, the 30-year-old, who is 5 feet 9 and weighs 183 pounds, is trying out for the Washington Federals. Hammond still shows traces of his business life. He wears a sleek gold watch and keeps a cordovan leather briefcase by his bed, yet he welcomes the return to training camp.

"I never intended to come back to football," he said. "But in this new league I have a different sort of chance. I get the feeling that since they're trying to put together a team from the beginning, I have more of a chance to show my talent.

"I don't like to point fingers at anyone, but in the beginning of my career, I don't think I got the best treatment because of my size. A small guy has got to be that much tougher. He has to have a big heart. I think the coaches here are appreciating that more."

In New York, Hammond competed against Ron Johnson, Doug Kotar and Billy Taylor; in Washington, against Metcalf and Washington. Although Hammond has been playing very well in camp, cutting sharply and catching passes, he may be out of luck again. Hammond is competing against the most promising player in the Federals' camp, Southern Methodist running back Craig James.

"I'm not worried about starting here," said Hammond. "There are a lot of things I can do here with my experience and I can help someone like Craig. He still has to learn (Offensive Coordinator Dick) Bielski's system and how to read defenses. (Quarterback Kim) McQuilken and I played together with the Redskins and we know some things that Craig needs to know."

James shared the tailback position with Eric Dickerson at SMU, but Federals Coach Ray Jauch said the 6-foot-1, 215-pound back may develop into a power runner, which might aid Hammond's bid to start at halfback in Jauch's two-back offense.

"It's only been a week. It's an understatement to say it's too early to know, but anything is possible at this point. Craig practically ran through a middle linebacker in our scrimmage Sunday and Bobby played great," said Jauch.

At Morgan State, Hammond broke the school rushing records of Frenchy Fuqua, George Nock and Leroy Kelly. After graduating, Hammond became a Giant in 1976.

In 1977 and 1978, Hammond started and showed the sort of versatility he hopes to recapture with the Federals. In those two years, he gained 1,131 yards in 286 carries and had 309 yards on 39 pass receptions. He also finished second in the NFC with a 10.4-yard punt-return average in 1977.

"I'm just glad this league came along so guys like me can show what we can do," said Hammond. "You know, I feel like a pioneer with this. Not right away, but sooner or later, players in the NFL are going to say, 'Hey, look at that.'

"A lot of (NFL) players I know are just sitting back and watching. A lot of them are going to feel that if they aren't getting the money they want or the playing time they want, they might ask for waivers and sign with the new league. You take a quarterback who's been playing backup for five years. Don't you know that he'll sign with the USFL?"

Hammond said he didn't think the USFL would be ready to compete with the NFL very soon. "We're still in the rough-draft stage," he said.

The Federals announced the signing of Duke offensive tackle Joel Patten, who spent a year with the Cleveland Browns before being released last summer. After a brief try at center, Dave Pacella has been moved back to offensive tackle.