Times like these, everyone around Washington loves the Redskins. But who is their most loyal fan? It must be Lester Richardson, who loved the Redskins even when he hated what they stood for.

Many Super Bowl fans may not remember when the Redskins were a symbol of racism. But Washington was the last team in the NFL to hire a black player when it signed Bobby Mitchell in 1962, and the 25 years before that were full of personal strife as black Washingtonians wrestled with conflicting emotions about the home team.

To Richardson, a black brick mason from Arlington who has held season tickets since 1941, when they cost $9.80, the decision was simple. "I'm a home-town guy," he said. "I live a block from where I was born. I like the home-town teams. I loved the Redskins then and I still do now, more than ever."

He loved them even when they treated him like dirt and caused him grief. In 1938, when still in high school, Richardson found his way into Griffith Stadium during a Redskins practice and sat and watched in awe, alone. "I had stars in my eyes," he said.

When practice ended, he made his way to the field and asked owner George Preston Marshall for an autograph. But Marshall, Richardson said, "Shoved his hand in my face and said, 'Get away from me, boy.' "

It was a vicious slight that Richardson never forgot. More than 20 years later, when Marshall, author of the team's whites-only policy, lay on his death bed, Richardson went to Redskins offices to pick up his season tickets and brought along a copy of his 1942 program from that championship year. He planned to suggest to team officials they reprint the program as a memento, but when they saw it they had another idea.

Richardson said they asked for the program to give to Marshall and cheer him up. Richardson's response?

"I told them I wouldn't give that man the sweat off my ice-water. I hated his guts. The whole city was cheapened by what he did."

So why has Richardson kept buying tickets for 46 years? "The team had nothing to do with that," he said. "Anyway, I love football. When they throw the ball up, I want to see who's going to go and get under it."

The ironies of this Super Bowl, when Washington goes to San Diego to rally around the first black quarterback ever to play in the championship game, are not lost on Richardson, who remembers when his neighbors wouldn't talk to him because he supported an all-white Redskins team.

"I suffered when the old teams with blacks came to town and buried our face in the mud. I absorbed that and I knew something had to give. Now I'm happy I'm alive to see it," said Richardson, who has two tickets to the Super Bowl and will use them.

So how good a fan is he?

"Since 1964, I have never left my house without some Redskins colors on me, seven days a week, wherever I go. If I go to the beach, I take my Redskins wallet; if I go full dress, I have my tuxedo hardware; when I go to work, I wear my Redskins sweatshirts. I have undershirts, drawers. I've got them on right now."

And he hasn't missed a home game since the team moved to RFK in 1962.

"I can't get enough of them," said Richardson. "It's not a seasonal thing, it's a lifetime thing, and I have the same enthusiasm now as I had as a 17-year-old."

Not every Washington native has been so loyal. Melville Turner is going to San Diego, too, to cheer on the Redskins, but he can remember when he went to Griffith and RFK Stadiums to root for the other team because it had black players.

Why the change of heart? "Because they are a class organization now," said Turner, a public school teacher.

"A lot of black players have gone on from the Redskins and were given a chance," he said, citing assistant general manager Mitchell and Charley Taylor, the receivers coach. "The Redskins have turned things around, just as a lot of America has. But the job is by no means finished."

Turner bought his first season tickets in the early 1960s, for $36. In those days the Redskins were so bad, "You looked forward to them punting. That was the highlight of the game," he said.

Today, the Redskins are a galvanizing force in Washington, one of the rare phenomena that bring rich and poor, black and white together unselfconsciously, particularly when they're winning.

"It's one of the few times the city forgets its differences and comes together regardless," said Grover Baird, a retired employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency and longtime Redskins fan. "Maybe it's superficial, but the white man smiles at the black woman and she smiles at him. There's a sort of aura, a pride and unity in the city. People who would never talk to each other stop in the street and talk about the Redskins."

Paul Poppin, a psychology professor at George Washington University, says he feels the strange pull of unity that comes from a succesful Redskins season and is as puzzled by it as anyone.

"There's clearly a strong identification," he said. "It's as if you're a part of the team and they are a part of you. With Washington it's interesting, because so many people come here from other places. It's something that pulls a lot of people together.

"It kind of transcends racial boundaries. Black and white kids wear the jerseys of players of the other race, and that's nice. But why? I don't know. It's like we all went to the same school. We share that, and it gives us something to talk about. And when the Redskins win, it means sharing a good fate together."

Said Turner, the schoolteacher, "I think having a winning team in any sport gives people a common feeling. It reflects civic pride -- having the best of something.

"The fans say, 'We won,' even though they didn't play a down."

All, perhaps, except Lester Richardson, who played some downs in his own brave way, cheering on a team for decades even though he despised what it represented, because he knew someday it had to change for the better.

"Sure, I'm pleased now," Richardson said, "because I helped to make it change."