If you don't believe football hearts flutter before September, or that the dreams of players who have been around a few years can be bent or broken in a single preseason game, consider the lives and hard times of Babe Laufenberg and Tony Zendejas.
Tonight, when the Washington Redskins (2-0 in preseason) play the New England Patriots (1-1), these two 25-year-olds might be the most recognizable of the players standing two places at once: on the field and on the brink.
Says quarterback Laufenberg, who has played in only one of the preseason games and seems to have been passed over in favor of Jay Schroeder: "It's come down to one chance. That's what I've wanted -- one chance in a decent situation. This is my shot. The Babe Laufenberg Story. This is my shot."
Says Zendejas, who has not made a field goal in three attempts in his preseason competition with Mark Moseley: "I cannot afford to miss another field goal. It's as simple as that. I see my next field goal like a do-or-die situation."
Laufenberg is scheduled to be the second quarterback tonight, behind Joe Theismann. He might work all of the second half. Zendejas, in rotation with Moseley, is expected to take the Redskins' second field goal attempt.
They honestly believe that this game, more than anything else, will alter the course of their careers with the Redskins. The fact that they smile and laugh when they talk about it is either deception or distraction. Or both.
They have traveled different paths to this game. Zendejas, the $150,000 bonus baby from the U.S. Football League who was fully expected to take Moseley's job, has had his chances and blown them.
Laufenberg, a two-year veteran who has not thrown a pass in a regular-season game, played just four series at the end of the Atlanta game two weeks ago in "mop-up" duty, then sat at Los Angeles as Schroeder drew raves.
Laufenberg concedes that Schroeder appears to be the No. 2 quarterback behind Theismann. "All indications would point to that," he said.
He says he isn't sure why he apparently has dropped to No. 3.
"There has been nothing to indicate I haven't done well," Laufenberg said. "I've shown for two years what I can do, and I don't know if it should all hinge on one game, one quarter, whatever, but it's going to, and I'm going to show them again what I can do."
As for the lack of playing time so far, Laufenberg shrugged. "You've got to play the cards you're dealt, and I got left out of the hand," he said.
Laufenberg acknowledges the pressure of the moment. "I plan on playing the way I'm capable of playing," he said. "I've got to apply some pressure through my play. I think it all depends on how I do Friday."
Almost a year ago to the day, Laufenberg played himself onto the roster (actually, injured reserve for the season with a shoulder strain) by completing 10 of 17 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown -- against the Patriots.
"Deja vu!" Laufenberg said. "The third preseason game, at home, against New England, the same situation. Neat, huh?"
Quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome says the parallels only add to the pressure.
"For a quarterback like Joe, if he's not 'on' for a quarter in a preseason game, it's okay, because we know what he can do," Rhome said. "For a young quarterback, not having a good quarter is really tough. So, to Babe, this is like the Super Bowl."
Zendejas has similar big-game visions.
"When you miss, people know you miss. It's not like an offensive lineman, if he makes a mistake. For him, it's 'Oh, forget it, they won't see it.' "
Zendejas, who never has had to compete for a job before, called the Raiders game "the worst" of his career. He missed a 39-yard field goal in the first quarter and had a low 47-yarder blocked at the end of the game.
"I've been off rhythm," he said. "I'm waiting too long to kick the ball. Right now, I'm thinking before I'm kicking. I'm hesitating. I'm waiting for them to put the ball down, spin it, get the laces out, and then I'm kicking, instead of just having the confidence in my center and my holder to go at my natural pace. Once you think, there goes a second. I cannot wait. I've just got to go on rhythm."
Seconds, minutes, days. Time's a-wastin'. And Moseley, a known quantity, looks stronger as this strange struggle grinds on.
"I think I'm running out of time," Zendejas said. "There are only a couple more games and I really haven't done anything. I've just got to start producing."
To further complicate matters, there might be a new long snapper tonight. Linebacker Pete Cronan practiced snapping on punts before and after yesterday's half-hour workout and probably will work there against New England. It's unknown if he will work on field goals, too.
"As they say, the more you can do . . . " said Cronan, who, at 30, has a difficult fight for a place on the 45-man roster.
Rookie free agent center Mike Wooten has been handling the long snaps in place of center Jeff Bostic, who is recovering from knee surgery. Wooten still is expected to snap on most, if not all, field goals and extra points tonight.
But should Wooten not make the final roster and Bostic not return by the beginning of the season, the Redskins are left with Darryl Grant, who gets quite a workout at defensive tackle as it is, and Schroeder, of all people.
"I thought we had polled everybody in camp (about their long-snapping experience)," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "I guess we hadn't asked Pete, so when we did and he said he did it in college, we wanted to give him a shot at it."
Head trainer Bubba Tyer said strong safety Tony Peters (mild hamstring strain) probably will play tonight. But wide receiver Charlie Brown (mild hamstring strain) still is experiencing "a little soreness" in his left leg, Tyer said, adding, "We'll probably wait and see on him".