He is football's oldest adolescent -- and proud of it.

"This kid is still having lots of fun," said Joe Theismann, 36 today. "I think one of the problems with the National Football League is that a bunch of old men have lost the little boy from their lives."

Little Boy Joe starts anew in the NFL sandbox tonight, although he never stops scrambling in one way or another. Fantasy today, reality tomorrow.

Just yesterday, on the television show he co-hosts, Little Boy Joe revealed yet another way to pronounce his surname: "Tiesmann."

Little Boy Joe entered Notre Dame as "Theesmann"; he left as "Thighsmann", because that rhymed with the important trophy he wanted to bag, and nearly did, the Heisman.

Bothered by something so personal suddenly being audiblized to win a fancy doorstop, Little Boy Joe called his grandmother -- and felt better when she told him the original pronunciation was "Tiesmann."

Whew! When he hosts "Hollywood Squares", or something equally intellectual, he can be known as Wisemann.

For Little Boy Joe, fantasy is having Too Tall Jones hang him by his nerdish neck during a commercial for durable men's athletic wear; reality is having Too Tall Jones smoosh him into the Texas Stadium carpet, as nearly happened last season.

Funny thing about that commercial: Too Tall did not pick up Little Boy Joe and hang him in his locker, as it appears. A hidden forklift did the hoisting.

"Ed was terrific the whole time. Take after take after take, I'd be throwing baby powder all over him or squirting water on him. That was to show how tough the product was.

"All Ed would do, each time, was go back and change. I chose Ed (as the company's commercial spokesman, Theismann had that right) because he's very big and very quiet, a man who could take a lot from this little jerk and then do something about it."

For many Redskin fans, and even more around the league, fantasy is that Theismann is more style than substance on the field; reality is that he is among the gutsiest guys in a bruising business.

In 11 NFL years, we have seen Theismann as artiste, as skilled as any passer in executing the ultimate football play: hitting a fleet receiver in stride half a field away.

He continues to look terrific.

How come?

At 36, Sonny Jurgensen had a 63-year-old body. That was in 1970 -- and he threw 337 passes; he threw only 399 passes the final four years of his career.

Little Boy Joe seems fit enough to throw 400 or so passes, without even mussing his makeup, into his 40s. The Redskins are gambling on close to that, to give brilliant prospect Jay Schroeder time to mature into starter's cleats.

His longevity, Little Boy Joe explains, has a lot to do with the system under which he operates. It's designed to keep a quarterback's limbs intact longer than most offenses.

"If I take a pounding," he said, "it's more because of my stupidity than the design of the offense. It challenges me mentally; physically, it allows as much as my body can take."

In his 18-year career, Jurgensen ran for a grand total of 494 yards; Little Boy Joe is the 10th most productive rusher in Redskins history, with 1,700 yards.

With the same out-of-pocket earnings as last season, 314 yards, he will become only the eighth Redskin to run for more than 2,000 career yards.

"It's important for him to have played in one system for so long," Jurgensen said. "You don't have different pass blocking, or keys. I played for nine different coaches . . .

Like pitchers in the American League, NFL quarterbacks cannot retaliate after cruel and unusual punishment. Face bars keep a passer from nailing a cheap-shot lineman in the face with the ball, as Sammy Baugh once did.

"I think quarterbacks have gotten hurt worse making tackles on interceptions than on those blind-side shots. Lots of times, they aren't as devastating as they seem because your body is relaxed," Jurgensen said.


Of the especially violent hits, Little Boy Joe said: "I remember all of 'em. Sometimes, you'd like to tell your linemen to take out a guy's knees, but you can't. Besides, most of the dirty guys play themselves out of the league pretty soon."

Among Washingtonians, the major health issue this fall is Redskins quarterback. For them, Strategic Defense Initiatives, or athletic star wars, is a scheme to keep their Little Boy Joe from aging too quickly.