HERNDON, Va. -- Two years ago Ron Middleton was lifting heavy things for a living. He was a "supervisor" on the Nashville loading dock of the Roadway trucking company.
What kind of job is that for a young man who had completed pre-law? No kind, Middleton agreed. "But you don't know what work is until you've picked cucumbers," he said. "For a dime a bucket."
He was 7 then, working in the fields around Atmore, Ala. Two years ago Middleton was 23, two years out of Auburn and on a mission. They had not convinced him that he was not a professional football player, and they weren't going to.
"They" up to that point were the managements of the Atlanta Falcons and the Washington Redskins, who had dismissed him, and for that matter the talent scouts of the other 26 NFL teams, who had not found him fit to draft in the first place.
The Redskins by then had released Middleton three times, and they would cut him again after training camp in 1989, setting a club record.
Against the Colts in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis tomorrow night, Ronald Allen Middleton will be a full-fledged Redskin, and maybe a Redskin and a half.
With tight ends Jimmy Johnson and John Brandes touchy with nagging shoulder injuries, Middleton will be involved in more than his usual 25 to 30 offensive plays.
"We may have to use him in more than two of our packages," said offensive line coach Rennie Simmons. "He can be counted on to fill in. We've been impressed with Ron's versatility. I guess we had him pigeon-holed as an on-line blocker."
Part of the reason, Simmons agreed, is that Middleton doesn't look like a classic tight end: tall and trim, wide only at the shoulders, like John Mackey. And with the Redskins there is always (for 12 seasons) the statuesque Donnie Warren for comparison.
At 255 pounds Middleton doesn't look 6 feet 2. "I don't think he is," said patently candid defense coach Rich Petitbon, who devised the free safety position circa 1960 to counteract the new tight ends.
"Anyway, the classic tight end is a dying breed," Petitbon added. "They're all glorified tackles now."
Or they double as H-back, coursing along the line of scrimmage, as Middleton did in practice yesterday. "He doesn't look it," coach Joe Gibbs said, "but he has fast feet."
"I've been up against that from Day One: 'He doesn't look like a tight end,' " Middleton said. "In college there was Jeff Parks, 6-4, a Donnie Warren type." Parks was a part-timer two years with Houston, one with Tampa Bay and now he's out of football.
"There were times I thought the league had given up on me," Middleton said, "but I never doubted I was good enough. I knew I was ideal for this team. I'll still go to law school, but now maybe I'll go as a world champ."
"He comes through for us," said line coach Jim Hanifan. "We can use him at the point of attack, where he's delivering the key block."
"He could have stayed in Cleveland," Gibbs said. Middleton helped the Browns into the playoffs last year, then made a spectacular catch for a winning touchdown.
"When I left that message on his phone, I said, 'I know you don't want to talk to me, but . . .' " Gibbs said.
"He admitted they made a mistake," Middleton said. "Not many coaches would admit that."
Middleton said he feels comfortable as a regular Redskin, but not secure. "No, I don't have it made," he said. "You're only as good as your last game."
He was spooked the other day when tight end Ken Whisenhunt was signed. "He's a good friend," Middleton said, "but I said, 'Oh, gosh!' "
Complimented by the Redskins' coaches on his "character," Middleton said: "That's country raisin'. My great grandma raised me and my sister. My mom was 16 when I was born and my dad 17. My grandma had been dead for five years.
"My great grandma taught us to work and taught us manners, to respect people. I can remember folks telling her we were the best-mannered children."
Middleton will be wearing No. 87 tomorrow night, his fifth number this year. "It was my number since high school," he explained, "but Terry Orr had it here."
Orr, released a third time by the Redskins this year, was signed by San Diego. Only then did Middleton ask for his number.
"It was out of respect for Terry," Middleton said at the time.
That was country raisin'.