The hit list was out and tight end Ron Middleton's name wasn't on it. Finally. He was congratulated yesterday morning by assistant general manager Bobby Mitchell and knew then that he had stuck with the Washington Redskins.

It took only four tries.

This is a man who was pre-law at Auburn, who has an understanding wife and a boy, Ron Allen II, who will turn 1 on Saturday. They are in Nashville. So why is he here? Why did he face the possibility of getting cut for the eighth time in five seasons by four teams?

"I've been playing football since the seventh grade," he said after his first worry-free practice. "It's just a part of you. It's like a person working at a plant for 20 years. You can't just up and just stop, not when you think you can go on.

"I love football. I love the practice; I love the games, that excitement. It's just a high. I think that's what keeps me going. There's life after football; I understand that. But as long as I can play, and as long as I can make a team, I'm going to try to."

He kept saying "I don't believe it." There is reason for that. He had been the last cut of the Redskins last season. He had been cut by Tampa Bay. He had been left unprotected by Cleveland after producing in postseason, and was re-signed the Redskins as a Plan B free agent. That was just last year.

Before, he had been cut twice by Washington, twice by Atlanta. Seven turks in four years. Eight career receptions. And even making the team this time was bittersweet, because he took veteran Terry Orr's job. Orr is smart, hard-working, a team guy. Much like Middleton.

So Middleton was worried. He had headaches. The weekend was not good.

"I went to sleep about 4 in the morning" Sunday night, he said. "I was scared, really. Real scared. Any time you're cut it's a little much. You kind of think . . . it's just like you can't beat this certain team. You kind of think it's a jinx. But I'm just happy that it all worked out. I still can't believe it, not quite.

"Somebody was calling my room early this morning. They called about five times and then hung up. Every time the phone rang, I was like 'Oh, here it is.' About 6:30 or so. Every time I answered it, I had a real down attitude answering the phone."

Said wide receiver Joe Howard, who also escaped the scythe and made the team: "It definitely was hard coming in this morning. You didn't know who was going to talk to you."

Middleton didn't call his wife after he heard. The plan was, if he was again released, he would call her in the morning. If not, he wouldn't call until nightfall. And Kim Middleton was still waiting to hear from her husband after the afternoon practice.

When the Redskins' coaches explained over the winter that they had made a mistake by cutting Middleton in the first place, management anted up and paid him a big bonus to come back. Coach Joe Gibbs left a message on Middleton's answering machine. "If you don't call back," Gibbs said, "I'll understand."

Yesterday, Gibbs gave Middleton what, for Gibbs, is the ultimate praise.

"He can be a great Redskin," Gibbs said. "He's smart and he's dedicated, and when we went looking at the draft, we couldn't find the big blocking tight end. Some of the hardest things to find are the Don Warren-type blocking tight ends.

"I thought about all that happened. It's quite a story. But it came down to he probably fits in a little better. Our tight end's got to be smart; he's got to be able to move."

If he had been cut, Middleton was going to look around again. But this was to be the last year. If he wasn't on a team by the end of the season, he and his wife agreed, he would find regular work. Be around to see his boy grow up. Normal family stuff.

"In this game, it's not what you have done in the past, it's what you're doing now," he said. "We've got 16 games. If I just say, 'Hey, I made the team' and just stop and quit, I won't be around next week. It's still a battle. You still have to go out and produce and do your job. If you don't, they'll find somebody else to do it for you."

That somebody else, at last, is Ron Middleton.