"Fourth down, a season to go."

This was Nate Fine an instant before the play that brought even Joe Gibbs to his knees. As usual, hunched behind a camera perched high in RFK Stadium Sunday, the eye of the Redskins had everything in sharp focus.

And when Darrell Green's hands -- or fate's -- caused Viking Darrin Nelson to drop that pass near the goal line, Fine held his camera and his emotions in check a while longer.

Nearby, Redskins assistants were tossing their headsets aside and chanting: "Nate . . . Nate . . . Nate." They were saluting once more the man to whom the NFC championship game had been dedicated.

But Nate's fine work was not yet complete. He knew the Redskins would enjoy watching themselves go bonkers, after the 17-10 victory, so he kept the motor on during lots of the postgame foolishness.

Of all the reasons the Redskins hold Fine in such esteem, the main one is this: he's been there. During each of their 51 seasons and for all but one of their hundreds of games, Nate Fine has been a small but meaningful part of the Redskins.

He's the last thread that links Sammy Baugh and Doug Williams; George Preston Marshall and Jack Kent Cooke; Ray Flaherty, Vince Lombardi and Gibbs; the single wing and H-backs; planes, trains and automobiles.

If thoughts of Fine seem uppermost in their minds, and have been more public, the Redskins are no less concerned for the family member surely neglected the longest -- Joe Kuczo.

Matched against Fine, Kuczo is a Johnny-come-lately with the Redskins. His association, as head trainer and assistant trainer, spans a mere 35 seasons.

Very often, Kuczo's smile has been the first to greet a visitor to Redskin Park; sometimes, it has been the only smile, everybody else at the place having at least temporarily forgotten that their obsession is, after all, a game.

"We go back together to Occidental College {in California, where the Redskins trained in the early '50s}," Fine was saying the other day. "We'd go out every night together, for ice cream."

Lately, they talk daily on the phone. From his bed at National Rehabilitation Hospital, Kuczo tells Fine how therapy for his stroke is progressing; from the film room at Redskin Park, Nate replays his latest round against cancer.

"Nate's a tradition," said Gibbs. "Mostly, fans don't know about our traditions, or why they're important. We have our snack sausages Thursday afternoon; our doughnut man, Ed; a sticker we paste to the door of the clubhouse on away games that everybody touches before we take the field.

"All those things that build up over the years are tradition. Same with Nate. The way he and {Dave} Butz fuss at one another; the little arguments I have with him. That's us. Part of a team; part of a family."

The audience for whom Fine has filmed and taped is limited, but no less critical than, say, Arch Campbell. With what amounted to a home-movie camera in the early days and sophisticated tape contraptions lately, Fine has given Redskins coaches the raw material necessary to develop game plans.

At first, Fine shot only the games; for years now, he has screwed his hat on backward and taped every play of every practice. So good and so thorough was Fine that he more than pleased the ultimate filmaholic, George Allen.

Allen might say to Fine, over dinner on a Redskins road trip, that he needed a film on every pass the upcoming opponent threw to the split end. And could he make it for the most recent five games? Nate could.

At the end of the 1971 season, Allen estimates, he had a 400-foot spool of nothing but Redskins nickel-back plays. Little wonder he was to present Fine last night a football honoring him as "the Cecil B. DeMille of the National Football League."

Tonight, Fine is to be given a special award by the Touchdown Club. In a prominent spot on a wall in his office is a picture of him being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt. Less obvious is the color shot of him snapping President Reagan in the White House.

So Nate Fine has gotten around.

In 51 years, he has met nearly everybody worth knowing around town -- and become friends with every Redskin who lasted long enough to fill his lens more than a few times.

Not far from his right shoulder in his office is an action picture of a 1940s halfback, Wilbur Moore, gathering in a pass over an Eagles defender named Roy Zimmerman. Nate also knew that the the other Eagle in the background is Jack Butler.

"Had to make the caption," he said, smiling.

Fine recalls the first Redskins coach, Flaherty, as a no-nonsense fellow who would stand none of the interference the flamboyant Marshall burdened others with.

It took a while to become comfortable with Lombardi.

"At first," Fine said, "he'd yell instead of sitting down and telling you what he wanted. It was always 'Green Bay this, Green Bay that.' He'd talk about Green Bay's films being pretty good; there'd never be a word about mine.

"Coming back from our first {regular season} game, in New Orleans {which the Redskins won}, he turned to me and said, 'Well, I've got to admit it. Your films are as good as Green Bay's.' "

Each coach had a unique style, Nate noticed. Lombardi had a "happy hour" every day at 5 p.m. and used to say, "If you're not ready by Wednesday, you'll never be ready." Gibbs sleeps in his office three nights a week.

For Baugh and some others, Fine summons his highest praise: "He's a real guy." His favorite player has been the one who has tormented him a good deal of the time: Butz.

"But I can't say anything bad about any of the players," Nate insists.

It's mutual. While watching him quietly continue his work between chemotherapy and radiation treatments, respect from Redskins and other friends has grown immensely. Out of daily sight, they know that Kuczo is hanging equally tough.

To them, we repeat what Hawkeye said to Henry Blake: "Sorry, but a handshake just won't do it."