There is one play in football that seems to demoralize an opposing team in a close game: a kickoff return for a touchdown.

Willie Gault's 99-yard touchdown return in the first minute of the second quarter might have provided only seven of the Chicago Bears' 45 points here this afternoon. But the near unanimous consensus among players from both teams was that Gault's electrifying return, down the sideline right in front of the helpless Washington bench, ignited a swift, bizarre and complete change that knocked the Redskins unconscious.

"That kickoff return turned on everybody, even the crowd," Chicago Coach Mike Ditka said. "There were a few curse words running through the crowd before that (with the Bears trailing, 10-0). But Willie's play changed it all. It was outstanding. He was the catalyst."

Gault, a world-class hurdler in college, didn't catch a pass. But his return not only closed Chicago to 10-7, it contributed to the injury of Redskins kicker Jeff Hayes and got the Bears so fired up that they looked like a different team.

"It was the biggest play of the ballgame," said Chicago quarterback Jim McMahon, who made several pretty big plays himself with three touchdown passes and 13 of his last 15 passes completed. "I had started really bad, zero for my first four passes with one interception. We really needed a spark, and that was it."

Emery Moorehead, Chicago's starting tight end, was standing next to Ditka on the sideline when Gault broke through. "After Willie got through the second wall," Moorehead said, "I knew he was going because he popped out in full stride. And it's only his third week returning kicks."

Gault said that when he was in the end zone waiting to take the kickoff from Hayes, he heard the team mascot say, "Run it back all the way." Gault said he didn't think he could, "but our line opened up this hole like the Red Sea and all I had to do was run. I ran directly at the kicker, and then there was one more guy (Barry Wilburn at the Redskins 28) who sorta had an angle on me. But I just gave him a stutter step and cut back to the middle."

Washington Coach Joe Gibbs called it one of the most devastating plays he has seen.

But the devastation really didn't begin until after the kickoff. A 36-yard kickoff return by Ken Jenkins was pushed back to the 19 because Dean Hamel shoved an official at the end of the play.

The Bears held George Rogers to one yard in two carries, then sacked Joe Theismann for a six-yard loss to set up a one-yard punt by Theismann.

One play later, the Bears scored on McMahon's 14-yard pass to Dennis McKinnon to take a 14-10 lead.

In the next 16 plays, Chicago's Richard Dent sacked Theismann into a fumble, McMahon made a Redskins blitz look goofy with another touchdown pass, Dent tackled Rogers for a seven-yard loss, Jay Schroeder punted for 22 yards, and McMahon caught a touchdown pass from Walter Payton.

Chicago 28, Washington 10.

"I don't know what happened out there," Ditka said just a few minutes after he told his team the same thing. "It was a very unusual football game to have that happen."

The Bears, like their coach, searched for explantions for what happened in that one 10-minute, 24-play sequence.

"It's difficult to explain even now what happened in that sequence," Chicago safety Gary Fencik said. "All of a sudden it was bam, bam, bam and they're struggling. It was amazing. Our offense kept getting the ball on their side of the 50.

"They've got to be puzzled. The game got totally out of hand."

And there's little doubt it began with the return by Gault, a player of staggering talents who still hasn't reached his potential.

In the past, Ditka has been all over Gault for mental mistakes. Recently, though, Ditka has backed Gault publicly, as have many of the Chicago players.

"Maybe I'm learning something, too," Ditka said. "Not to jump all over him all the time for a mistake . . . I marvel at what he does, his speed. In the last couple of games you've seen not only how much Willie means to our team, but the impact he'll have on this league."

Gault, who returned five kickoffs for touchdowns at the University of Tennessee, knows what a return such as his today can do for a team. He says he also knows how much the support of the team and Ditka has meant for him.

It would be difficult for Gault to find a better way of showing his gratitude.