Then: In the late 1970s, when Howard University was struggling in football, the Bison had a flanker named Steve Wilson, who went on to play a season for the Dallas Cowboys at wide receiver and two years in the secondary before being released in 1982.

"I know Howard's got that guy Harvey Reed," said Kenneth Pimpton, a linebacker at Howard back then and now an audit manager in Houston. "When we played, Steve was that person. He was the catalyst. I'm sure everyone geared their defenses to try and stop him."

Now: Steve Wilson, starting right cornerback for the AFC champion Denver Broncos, who once held every important receiving record for the Bison, will probably line up today opposite Washington's Ricky Sanders and at times Art Monk, an all-pro wideout who holds the league record for receptions in a single season.

The past is prologue.

"I came to Denver with all intentions of leaving the next day," said Wilson, the only player from Howard currently playing in the NFL. He had no interceptions for the Broncos this season, but was involved in 36 tackles.

He strained his left hamstring in the AFC title game against Cleveland, and had to leave the game during the Browns' final series. That's the reason Jeremiah Castille was in the game when he forced the fumble by Earnest Byner that secured the Broncos' 38-33 victory. Wilson said he will be fine for the Super Bowl.

Wilson, whose father Tommy Wilson played for the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings in the 1950s, has been in big games before. He's played in four conference title games and today will be making his second Super Bowl appearance. Signed by Denver in September 1982, he has played at both left and right cornerback -- by design. Suffice it to say that the two positions are not interchangable.

"A long time ago," said Denver Coach Dan Reeves, "we felt we needed to look at all of the players available {for the secondary}, and Steve was one of those players. I already remembered him from Dallas {where Reeves was backfield coach through 1981}. He's played very well for us. He's not a super player, but he's very important for us."

While at Howard (1975-78), Wilson was the most important player. The Bison were perennial losers during his four years on the team. Though he had played some defensive back in high school in Durham, N.C., Howard needed him to score points more than defend against them.

"We knew he had the capability of playing defensive back," said former Howard coach Doug Porter (1974-1978). "We needed him more as an offensive receiver, because we were really in trouble in that area."

"When the record isn't that good," Wilson said, "you try to play with the same pride as you ever do. Certainly, it was difficult."

"He wasn't a real rah-rah kind of guy, but he led a helluva lot by example," Pimpton said. Once, the Bison were on the road against Florida A&M, and Wilson had been held out of the game in the first half because of injury. The Bison weren't trailing at halftime.

Wilson, who normally said little, said an earful then.

"I don't want to make it sound like Knute Rockne," Pimpton said, "because we lost the game. I wouldn't say it was out of character for him, but he did lead more by example."

Despite his numbers, he still wasn't drafted, and the Cowboys signed him as a free agent in 1979. In those days, Drew Pearson and Tony Hill were among the NFL's elite, and Butch Johnson was pushing them hard. Dallas wanted a fourth receiver, and Wilson found himself with 21 other wide receivers in camp. On more than one occasion, he said, he could go through the whole day without getting anything thrown his way.

But one important Cowboy saw something good in Wilson. He liked the way Wilson worked on the defensive backs, and mentioned it to Reeves and Coach Tom Landry.

In pro football, especially pro football in Dallas, it's good when Roger Staubach likes you.

"I guess," Wilson said, "if you want somebody on your side, that's a good one to have."

But after his first season, Dallas wanted to see how he would do on the defensive side of the ball, after injuries to Bennie Barnes and Aaron Kyle.

"I really wasn't thrilled about it," Wilson said. "after playing wide receiver in college, and having gotten a year under my belt. I had finally learned the offense, and I was just starting to feel comfortable. It was just an opportunity to get on the field."

"He did a tremendous job running the opponent's plays for our defense," recalled Dallas linebacker coach Jerry Tubbs. "And Coach {Gene} Stallings, the secondary coach, since he wasn't doing great on offense, he switched him over to defense."

In 1981, Wilson started 11 games at left cornerback. But when the Cowboys developed Everson Walls and Ron Fellows, and used their No. 1 pick in the 1982 draft to select cornerback Rod Hill, Wilson was vulnerable.

"He was a hard worker, he was a hustler," Tubbs said. "But it seemed like the plays he made on offense, he just didn't make as many {on defense}."

"I played a lot of games with no experience," Wilson said. "It was all on-the-field training. I just relied on my athletic ability to make plays, when I really didn't know what I was doing."

Wilson was benched near the end of the 1981 season, when then-rookie Walls "was making some unreal plays," Wilson said. The next season, he asked Landry if he could go back to wide receiver.

"I knew they pretty much had what they wanted at wide receiver," he said. "It was a gamble, really, but it paid off for me."

When the Cowboys let him go, the Giants and Patriots both indicated they would be interested. He was about to go to New York to talk with General Manager George Young when the Broncos called.

"I was going to go back east," he said. "{Denver} said they wanted to look at me. I said I had no time, I was going to New York."

Obviously, he changed his mind. In Denver, he has been part of the Broncos' ever-changing secondary, alternating between left and right corner on alternating series. When Tony Lilly was moved to safety, Wilson got his current starting assignment.

So when Wilson goes out on the field against Washington, he will have traveled maximum distance to get there. He knows that guys like himself, free agents from non-football schools, are not a dime a dozen in the NFL.

"A lot of days," he said, "you felt like going home."