HERNDON,VA. — HERNDON, Va. -- It is vexing to Kelvin Bryant when a linebacker obstructs his pass route with illicit hands, but there is a trace of a smile when he tells about it. It is recognition, most sincere.
"Best I've ever seen coming out of the backfield," Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs says of his star non-running back.
"They have to defense him that way," running backs coach Don Breaux explains, "because he's a threat beyond 15 yards. Not too many guys can go deep out of the backfield."
Not too many guys have taken the tortuous road that has at last carried Bryant, approaching 30, to prominence and happiness as the NFL's premier third-down back.
Or second-and-long back. In any such situation at San Francisco on Sunday there will be No. 24, as a sort of one-wingback offense, or tailback in the ostensible "I" formation.
"I know I'll be going in at some point," Bryant said, "and I'm pretty happy about that, as long as we're winning."
So Kelvin has finally sublimated his drive to be the featured running back, which was not easy for a kid from Tarboro, N.C., who had carried footballs thousands of yards and scored dozens of touchdowns by his 25th birthday.
There was an anniversary last week: nine years since Kelvin Bryant scored six TDs as North Carolina buried East Carolina, 56-0. In three years with the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL he gained 4,943 yards and scored 52 touchdowns.
There was a tremor of excitement in the Redskins' camp at HTC Carlisle in August 1986, when the USFL folded and left the Redskins' draft rights to Bryant operative.
But in his second game as a Redskin the Raiders crunched Bryant on a running play and he was out for six games. That, plus his history of injuries in college, led to his reputation as a talented player without durability.
Kelvin was the second most productive of Redskins backs in the short, successful 1987 season, but the "injury-prone" label stuck. There followed whispers that he ran tentatively, almost timidly.
In the fifth game of 1988, with Timmy Smith failing utterly to live up to his Super Bowl celebrity, Bryant stepped in as running back and almost bailed the team out against the Giants. It was 24-9 when Kelvin got the ball and a breathless 24-23 at the end.
For the next five games he played like a man on a mission. The Skins won four of them, but a knee injury finished his season. The team finished 1-5 without him.
Bryant says he took over "just because the job wasn't getting done." But he acknowledged that he was "sick of hearing" about his frailty. "And I wanted to show him [Gibbs] that I could run the ball," Bryant said. "I'm pretty sure he knew I could. It was just a question of staying healthy."
That was, and is, the question. "He has everything but the durability," Breaux said yesterday. "But he's no decoy in there. He's not just a good pass blocker; he's great at it."
Bryant impressed Breaux last year, when he couldn't play at all. A herniated spinal disc, suffered in an auto accident, made it doubtful Bryant would ever play again.
"He came to all the meetings and watched all the films, and asked questions," Breaux said. "A lot of guys get bored and lose interest, but I never saw him doze off once. The man loves football, and he really knows the game."
"He's a very valuable part of our offense," Gibbs said. "Yes, we have plays in the book that are designed for him. You'll see Kelvin in there a lot."
Guard Mark May's surgically repaired knee is getting better every day, and so is his harness racing stock.
May is now the proud owner of the yearling filly Deep Hollow Lady. He bought her "pretty cheap" at an Ohio sale. "She's a trotter, staked for everything," May said.
Deep Hollow Lady might have been a bargain at any price. She has a Hambletonian winner in her sire line and the breeding of Charlie Ten Hitch on the bottom. It was Charlie who got May the winner's share of the $600,000 Peter Haughton at The Meadowlands last month.
Her name will be changed, May said, possibly to Another Hitch, "or something else from the playbook."
Charley Ten Hitch is not an Indian chief, but the name of a Redskins pass play. "What's the pass play we use most frequently?" May asked quarterback Mark Rypien, passing by.
"Charlie Ten Hitch," Rypien said.