Ever the gentle giant, Joe Jacoby's self-confidence continues to grow these days. Now, he is the starting left offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, a former free agent to whom many current Redskins free agents point to, in near reverence, and say, "See, it can be done."

"We don't look at Joe as a former free agent," says free safety Mark Murphy, also a former free agent, voicing the view of the Redskins' veterans. "We look at him as a future all-pro."

" 'Big Jake' I call him, like the John Wayne image," says Joe Bugel, coach of the offensive line. "Joe has become one of the three best left tackles in the conference, I think, with Mike Kenn of Atlanta and Pat Donovan of Dallas."

Jacoby, 24, is a sheer physical presence on the field, an immovable blocker who seemingly beats on the heads of many defensive linemen as if they were so many bongo drums. Yet, he is a calm, quiet sort off the field, always hanging out with left guard Russ Grimm.

"I stay with him for the protection," Grimm says, laughing.

Mind you, Jacoby is still an introvert, but no longer is he the bashful 6-foot-7, 300-pound former University of Louisville skyscraper you envisioned playing peekaboo over Kentucky silos. He is no longer the trembling rookie who two years ago listened to Coach Joe Gibbs tell him during a minicamp what promise he held as a defensive lineman. "I was too scared to tell him I played offense," says Jacoby.

But the fact is, while Jacoby's personality is easy, his life has been 24 years worth of traumas and challenges.

Jacoby tells the story of how his father, who worked on a Louisville assembly line that produced metal washers, died after suffering his fourth heart attack in 1974.

"From year to year," Jacoby remembers, "he was just kind of wasting away. He went from 6-foot, 210 pounds to 5-10, 165 pounds . . . I never really knew him. He died when I was 14. He never could understand why I liked football."

Jacoby tells the story of how, when he was a freshman at Louisville, he returned home and was watching television one morning when his mother came downstairs, screaming hysterically. Jacoby's younger brother, then 14 years old, had died in his sleep.

"He was born a blue baby (a baby born with blueish skin, often because of a heart defect). When he died, he was 6-1, 260 pounds and in the ninth grade. We don't really know how he died because my mother didn't want an autopsy," Jacoby says.

Consequently, Jacoby and his older brother Charles (who is 6-7, 275 pounds now) and his younger sister Mary, now 21, grew up and grew close with their mother, whose name was also Mary She had worked in the bedsheets section of a Louisville department store since 1969, raising the family, Joe Jacoby recalls.

Perhaps all this set up Jacoby for the greatest shock of all. A little more than one week into his first training camp with the Redskins, when he was a free agent sweating and hitting to beat out veterans such as Terry Hermeling, Ron Saul and Dan Nugent and high draft picks like Mark May and Grimm, Jacoby found out his mother had died of a heart attack.

And his world turned over.

"Coach Gibbs called me out of a team meeting one night and I said to myself, 'Oh God, this is it. I've been cut.' Then he told me mother had died. I was very close with my mother. I remember that she died on July 24," Jacoby says.

For the rest of that awful night, Jacoby drove around Carlisle with Grimm, his best buddy. "We didn't go to sleep all night. We walked all around training camp. We drove around in Russ' jeep. We sat together in the grandstands by the (practice) field. Russ didn't know what to say because he had never experienced anything like that. I told him, 'You won't like it when it happens,' " says Jacoby.

Jacoby then went home to Louisville for the funeral. He was gone from training camp for 10 days, his mind uncertain about so many things. "I almost decided then that I wasn't coming back to football," he remembers.

But Jacoby says he decided to return to the Redskins after his brother Charles, now 25 and working at Louisville Ladder and living in his parents' old house, advised him, "You might as well go back to football. There really isn't any future for you staying around Louisville."

It is with a kind human touch of a man filled with so many family sorrows, that Joe Jacoby says today, "I've learned to appreciate life more because I realize anything can happen to you in a moment.

"I remember how my parents got so bottled up, worrying about paying bills. It worried them. They were always looking out for the kids. Sure, I have bills now. I pay them. I don't worry about them. I enjoy my life. I can go out and buy steaks now. I remember growing up, we used to eat hamburger and soup most of the time. We hardly ever ate steak."

"There has been a big change in Joe since he's been here: personalitywise, confidencewise, financewise," says Grimm. "We have a unique friendship."

Once Grimm and Jacoby were roommates, living and laughing in a Reston apartment.

"I did the cleaning," says Jacoby, "He did the cooking."

Now, Grimm is married and Jacoby has bought a house in Vienna, where he lives with his younger sister. "The kids in our family have grown closer through everything," Jacoby says.

But to get a true understanding of Jacoby, the football player, you look to Grimm. When Grimm walked into the team lunchroom after practice today, arriving long after Jacoby, he told his training camp roommate, "Thanks for waiting for me, meathead."

To which Jacoby, self-confidence ever growing, curled his upper lip in a show of mock anger towards Grimm. Asked to describe their friendship, Jacoby looked at Grimm, growled, and said simply, "Over."

Then, the two friends laughed, enjoying some happy times.