Brian Mitchell thought that was pretty funny, how he kept hearing what the Washington Redskins were saying about him last spring. Questions about work habits. Questions about dedication. Whispers that he might end up like a few million others who had the speed or the hands or the strength, but never amounted to much.

He wanted to laugh. He wished they knew how wrong they were. He wished they knew about growing up in Plaquemine, La., and how he had four older brothers and how he took their elbows and shoves because he wanted to play with them. He wished they knew how many times he'd finished playground football and basketball games despite bruised ribs and bloody knees and loose teeth.

He wished they knew about his dad, Blanche, the career Army man who pushed his baby boy, telling him to get back out there and trade some more punches with the big boys. Blanche Mitchell demanded good report cards and told his kids education was important. Blanche Mitchell pushed and pushed, and his youngest son can still hear him screaming: "Come on, you can do it, you're a Mitchell!"

He died of heart attack in February, a few months after seeing his kid play in Dallas last Thanksgiving Day, and Brian Mitchell still thinks of his dad almost every day. "I still feel him in me and that makes me play better," Brian Mitchell said. "I know he wanted me to succeed. It makes me feel good he saw a game. We didn't win, but I think I played well enough for him to be proud. I was his last son, and for me to do well, I'm sure made him feel good.

"I always say I can do anything, but I was raised that way. He always made me do the same things my older brothers did. I remember we never had to get any plumbers or carpenters to come over because he had his boys."

Brian Mitchell wished the Redskins could know that he'd never failed at anything. He'd graduated from Plaquemine High with a 3.5 GPA and had scored 28 out of a possible 35 on his ACT tests. His last two years in high school he attended a Saturday morning program called "Upward Bound" to prepare kids for college-level courses. One college offered a chemical engineering scholarship and he won a grant from Dow Chemical that gave him pocket money to go with his football scholarship to the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

If the Redskins didn't think he was dedicated, they were going to be surprised. He'd almost always run the extra mile, done the extra work and taken the extra step of preparation. The odd part of it was that he knew the kind of people the Redskins were talking about. He'd known dozens of guys who had wasted their talents and one of the driving forces in his life was not to be like them. The Redskins didn't know the Brian Mitchell that Brian Mitchell knew.

"Ever since I was in the eighth or ninth grade, I knew you couldn't do anything without going to school," he said. "Everyone else had to have a 2.0 GPA to play, but my dad said if we didn't have a 3.0 we couldn't play. I knew it was important because I saw a lot of guys who were great athletes, but they didn't play after high school. . . . I was determined not to be like that."

These days, there are few questions about Brian Mitchell. Relegated to special teams work because Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs are in front of him in the backfield, Mitchell has put together a season that has been one flash of heat after another.

He broke a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown in a 45-0 opener against Detroit. He ran a fake punt for a first down to keep a crucial drive alive in Dallas. He had a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown called back against Phoenix. He broke a 66-yarder for a touchdown against Cincinnati.

He has a playful personality and a quick laugh and almost all the Redskins like him. He has made punt coverage, Red Area scoring and field goal accuracy a topic all around town.

One of the first things Joe Gibbs tells his players is that special teams are the way they can make the team. Mitchell opened their eyes by returning kicks and covering punts. The Redskins still talk about the way Ravin Caldwell decked a return man in his first pro game, and John Brandes, Jeff Rutledge, Terry Hoage and Danny Copeland were all brought to Washington, in part, because of the contributions they could make on special teams.

And people have stopped saying bad things about Brian Mitchell. The Redskins wondered about him last season. He was late for a couple of meetings and didn't set attendance records in the weight room. He has a talkative personality and talkative rookies are sometimes mistaken as cocky rookies.

"I was a little concerned about some things," Gibbs said. "I told Don {Breaux, running backs coach} to talk to Brian, that I was kind of worried about him. He's got extreme athletic arrogance. He believes he belongs. He believes he can play. I wanted Brian to know he had to work too. A couple of things happened during the season that bothered us. . . . But I'll tell you, he really worked this offseason, and I think that's why he's doing what he's doing right now. He has proven he'll do what it takes to be a good football player."

Special teams coach Wayne Sevier said he'd also had some talks with Mitchell. "I think I was harder on him than any guy I've ever had," he said. "I could see tremendous potential, but it looked like it might be slipping away. He just didn't seem intent on taking care of business. He's a very smart guy, and he got the message. His professionalism hasn't been called into question once this year. He's smart enough to figure things out."'Burning Desire to Succeed'

Don Jones, his head coach in high school and at Southwestern Louisiana, already knew that. He has known Mitchell nine years and says he has always been mature beyond his years. He also said he has "more burning desire to succeed than anyone I've ever known. He won't fail."

Mitchell: "I didn't know until after the season that my work habits were supposed to be a problem. I knew nothing about that. I'm not the kind of person they apparently thought I was, and I wanted to show them. It bothered me. I do like to have fun and I kid around sometimes. But I also work."

When he realized how much emphasis the Redskins put on offseason training, Mitchell decided to prove his work ethic was sound.

"I wasn't in the best shape I could be in," he said. "I'd feel good for stretches and there'd be other times when I wouldn't feel good. I don't feel many guys worked harder than me this offseason, and I guess that's why I've run like a bat out of hell. I feel I've done so much in the offseason that my body's in good enough shape that I'll stay fresh."

Has success surprised him?

"I would say I'm surprised," he said. "Then again, I felt it would happen. So many times last year, we were close to breaking returns. As this year began, you could tell everybody wanted it. When you look at the punt returns, you're seeing 10 guys blocking their butts off. They're giving me big holes, like the ones you see in practice. The reason is they feel I can take it all the way, and I'm confident in their blocking. That's the way I repay them and give them the credit because I couldn't do anything without them. I mean some of the holes out there have been huge."

His running style isn't what people have come to expect from big-play punt returners. He's not a flashy, slashing runner and doesn't have Bo Jackson speed. He hasn't made his money going for the sidelines, but straight up the middle, daring cover men coming straight for him that he can take them on one on one.

Against the Lions, he slipped through a small opening and into the open, stepped from another tackler and went untouched into the end zone even though two men appeared to have an angle on him. He motored away from both of them and did the same thing in Cincinnati when Eric Ball appeared to have the angle on him.

The Redskins have clocked him at anywhere from 4.5 to 4.39 seconds in the 40, but with long, smooth strides and a thick upper body, cover men don't expect him to move so fast.

"If you get caught from behind, you don't want to walk back to the sidelines," he said. "Our guys don't let you forget it. I saw 42 {Ball} closing on me in Cincinnati and I just wasn't going to let him catch me. If I had to dive from the 5-yard line, I would do it."

He said his returning style was a matter of "confidence in myself. If I have a yard or three yards between me and the tackler, he's not going to stop me. The first guy isn't anyway. It's hard to tackle anybody one on one in the open field. The cover guys are coming down full speed, and I catch the ball and go straight upfield. I go straight at you, and if you're coming straight downfield, you're not going to tackle me. It's hard to stop when you're coming full speed."

Mitchell had scholarship offers from Oklahoma, Nebraska, Arkansas, LSU and Tulane. But almost all of those schools said a couple of things he didn't like: He'd probably be redshirted and he'd probably be shifted to defensive back, running back or wide receiver. Not all of them were completely forthcoming about it.

He ended up following his high school coach, Jones, to Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette because he was told there probably would be no redshirt season and because he'd also get a chance to play quarterback. A lot of coaches who didn't think he could play quarterback must have been surprised by his final stats -- 5,447 rushing yards and 3,335 passing yards. No player in NCAA history had rushed for 5,000 yards and passed for 3,000 yards. His 47 rushing touchdowns is an NCAA record.

Every NFL team had him on their checklist, and the Redskins sent Breaux to the school for a workout, then saw him again at a collegiate all-star game in Houston.A Draft-Day Gamble

The Redskins took a fifth-round chance, making him the 130th pick of the 1990 draft. They said he'd be tried at running back, but the first time he touched the ball he returned a kickoff 92 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in preseason.

"I made him the protection man on punts," Sevier said, "and he's the first rookie I've ever had done that with. That's how much faith I have in him."

Mitchell still makes mistakes. He was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated in mid-August. He apologized to Gibbs for the incident and promised not to let it happen again.

"It's been interesting watching him," Gibbs said. "He came from a different background and it took us a while to figure out how to use him. I know he wants to carry the ball more, but he has taken what we've given him and done what he can for the team."

................LONGEST IN TEAM HISTORY................

Yrds. ... Player vs. ............................. Date

96 ...... Bill Dudley vs. Steelers ........... 12/03/50

86 ...... Rickie Harris vs. Giants ........... 10/19/69

80 ...... Dick Todd vs. Brooklyn ............. 11/12/39

80 ...... Tony Green vs. Eagles .............. 09/10/78

78 ...... Dick Todd vs. Giants ............... 09/22/40

76 ...... Cliff Battles vs. Eagles ........... 10/10/36

76 ...... Bert Zagers vs. Giants ............. 10/27/57

75 ...... Mike Nelms vs. Patriots ............ 10/25/81

74 ...... John Williams vs. Eagles ........... 11/09/52

73 ...... Derrick Shepard vs. Cardinals ...... 10/04/87

69 ...... Brian Mitchell vs. Lions ........... 09/01/91

66 ...... Brian Mitchell vs. Bengals ......... 09/22/91

NOTE: All but Shepard's were touchdowns.

Nelms is the only other Redskin to return two punt returns for scores in the same season. His other one was 58 yards.