The question came during practice Saturday, two days before Jay Schroeder, the fair-haired reserve, would become the Washington Redskins' No. 1 quarterback for the rest of the 1985 season.

Defensive tackle Dave Butz walked over to Schroeder and said what other players had wondered, but never asked:

"Have you ever taken a snap with the offense in practice?"

Schroeder, a little startled by the question, thought for a moment before he answered:

"No."

Is it any wonder that Coach Joe Gibbs is calling Schroeder's winning, 221-yard performance Monday night in relief of injured Joe Theismann "a fairy tale?"

No one expected 24-year-old Jay Schroeder -- a former catcher in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, a son of the vast suburban sprawl of Southern California, a player with the build and looks of a star, but without any of the experience -- to be starting at quarterback for the Redskins this Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Least of all, Schroeder himself.

Unlike most athletes, he never allowed himself to dream of his first moment in the pros, possibly because sports, baseball especially, had awakened in him a stern realistic streak.

But when he ran onto the field against the New York Giants and leaned over Theismann's stetcher to say softly, "We're gonna get this one for you," his practical side made him right.

"I've always been in that situation, it seems like," Schroeder said yesterday at Redskin Park, where he lifted weights but didn't throw, to get ready for this week after Monday's 23-21 victory over the Giants.

"You're playing baseball and you're sitting on the bench all game and all of a sudden, you've gotta go up and do something. I think that's helped me quite a bit. I just knew all year that it was gonna happen sometime, whether it was this year, next year or the year after."

Many people undoubtedly mispronounced Schroeder's name yesterday morning. (It's SHRAY-der.)

The guy called himself a "kid" in one interview, as in, "Hopefully, I'm being perceived as a kid that just came in and did his job."

He bounced from interview to interview as willingly as any collegian, but then excused himself to attend his son Brian Jay's first birthday party.

It's been two crazy days in the Schroeder household.

He had prepared for this moment so diligently, patiently running the plays of the opponents' offense to get the Redskins' defense ready each week. Some of his teammates said they thought the heavy rush he faced from Redskins defenders helped him Monday night against the Giants. Schroeder agreed.

But his hours of studying a game plan he never thought he'd move one muscle for helped even more. Last week, he and Gibbs spoke about his need to practice, even "four or five plays" a week, Schroeder said.

Schroeder said Gibbs told him he understood, but no, Theismann "is going to get all the work."

When two Giants folded Theismann onto his right leg, forcing a compound fracture that is expected to keep him from rehabilitation for six months, in came Schroeder.

His first pass went 44 yards to Art Monk. "Whether I was throwing it or Joe was throwing it, we were gonna throw it," Schroeder said.

At halftime, Gibbs asked Schroeder if he wanted to scratch some plays from the game plan, to make things easier.

Schroeder shook his head, no.

"Don't shorten it down for me," Schroeder remembered saying. "Everybody else has been working on it all week. I'll adjust to them.

"The way I look at it is: Why should 44 people change for one guy when one guy can change for 44?"

Aware of the touchy situation he had been dropped into, he twice decided to put his head down and try for more yards rather than run out of bounds or go for the usual quarterback slide. "By doing that, I think it showed everybody on the club, 'Hey, this guy's out here to fight, he's not gonna give this thing up, so we're not gonna give it up.' "

Schroeder, who is 6 feet 4 and weighs 215 pounds, played football for only two seasons at UCLA. He was more interested in baseball, until baseball wanted to turn him into a pitcher, and he said no thanks.

He had the arm, of course (he used to win beers by standing on home plate and throwing "home runs" over the outfield fence in the minors), but he didn't want to pitch.

So he turned to football and was taken in the third round of the 1984 draft by the Redskins.

He was an unknown until Monday.

"After the game, my wife Debbie and I went right home, tried to relax, and really tried to figure what actually just happened," Schroeder said. "It was a little different. We weren't used to that."