HERNDON, Va. -- "It started with the first third down," Martin Mayhew said. "But I knew it was going to happen."
The young cornerback was recalling his ordeal in the Washington Redskins' defeat in Candlestick Park on Sept. 16. The 49ers' Joe Montana began firing at Mayhew in the second minute of the game and didn't stop until the 55th minute, by which time San Francisco had the game put away, 26-13.
Asked afterward whether he thought the 49ers were "picking on" him, Mayhew said: "Didn't you?"
His man, the fleet John Taylor, scored only six of the points, but he gave Mayhew a very long afternoon. "I was so close, so many times," Mayhew recalled. "But I didn't make any plays."
He did make a few. Of the 12 passes thrown his way that day, Taylor caught eight, for 160 yards and a touchdown.
Mayhew will see him again in Candlestick Park on Saturday. "I expect they'll try me again," Mayhew said. "But I look forward to it. I think I'm better now."
Mayhew has spent a good deal of his 25 years in self-evaluation. He is 5 feet 8, 172 pounds, and he was 20 pounds lighter when he got out of high school in Tallahassee, so he didn't expect college scouts to call.
But Mayhew's high school was under Florida State's nose, and one coach thought he perceived an undersized overachiever. "Competitive and intelligent," secondary coach Mickey Andrews said, and pronounced Mayhew a defensive back.
"I believe he's an NFL corner right now," Redskins defense chief Rich Petitbon said yesterday. "I think he has a cornerback's mentality: when you get beat you can't worry about it."
"Yes, I felt bad," Mayhew said of his embarrassment in San Francisco. "But I got more determined. I want to go back and try again."
At Florida State, Mayhew had 186 tackles, five interceptions and two dozen deflections before he graduated in December 1987. It was self-evaluation time again. Was he good enough to be drafted by an NFL team?
With a degree in business and a 3.0 grade-point average, Mayhew conditionally took the job offered by the First Union Bank of Charlotte, N.C. Buffalo drafted him in the 10th round (262nd player chosen), but Mayhew spent the 1988 season on injured reserve. They left him unprotected from the Plan-B draft and Bobby Beathard, in one of his last acts as Redskins general manager, signed him.
That first third-down pass at San Francisco actually went to tight end Wesley Walls, for a first down, and Mayhew made the first of his six tackles. On the next third down, Taylor slanted in and had 12 yards before Mayhew tackled him.
At third-and-12, three plays later, Taylor slanted in again and Mayhew had help from safety Todd Bowles to drag him down after a 26-yard gain. Close again.
Before the first quarter ended, Montana threw one behind Taylor, then overthrew him. Then, halfway through the second quarter, it happened.
"The only really bad play," Mayhew recalled. "They'd been throwing those quick slants. Taylor went in again and I went with him. But he broke to the outside."
And down the sideline, where Montana found him, two full strides ahead of Mayhew. Forty-nine yards and a touchdown. The Redskins trailed, 17-3, and never recovered.
The films have shown the 49ers that Mayhew is, indeed, better. But they'll throw at him anyway, because he's the other guy. Across the field the Niners will have Jerry Rice, the world's best wide receiver. But with him will be Darrell Green, the world's best cornerback.
"I'm always the other guy," he said then, smiling. At Florida State the other cornerback was flamboyant Deion Sanders, about as "other" as football players get. "He was quiet at first," Mayhew reported.
"I am probably Martin's biggest fan," said Green, 30 and a fourth-time Pro Bowler, "because I see in him the attributes it takes to be a great corner."
Mayhew had noted that his Candlestick experience was part of "a bad day for the secondary as a whole." That was true: Rice caught six for 74 yards and a TD.
"The most impossible thing you can do is shut Jerry Rice down to where he catches no balls," Green said. "That probably isn't going to happen."
Since his Rookie of the Year debut, Green has preached that thou shalt get beat in the vulnerable, visible position of cornerback. "I'm sure Martin is very much more matured now," he said, "understands what he's trying to accomplish and understands what teams are trying to do to him.
"[What matters] is what you do the next play, the next game. That's the biggest thing that has carried [Mayhew] over. He has gathered a lot of respect around the league."