The star and the nobody from the Class of '82 sat across the desk from each other, 17 years after their high school graduation. David Cope was everything Daniel Snyder wasn't at Bethesda's Charles Woodward High School: an admired athlete, popular with the girls, an easy mover among the right cliques.

Now the star had come to accept a job from the former nobody -- the new 34-year-old owner of the Washington Redskins -- who had uncomfortably learned just seconds earlier, from Cope, that the two had been classmates.

There was a long pause.

"Let's not pretend we knew each other," Snyder said. Snyder wouldn't be patronized, nor did he want anyone believing that the 35-year-old Cope -- a talented marketing executive lured away from the Baltimore Ravens -- had been hired on the basis of connections. Snyder's view of Cope was tinged with neither the envy nor the long-standing awe of others in their class; it was slightly paternalistic. "Don't make him sound like a hero coming down," Snyder instructed a reporter. "He's a nice kid."

Now the star takes orders from the once-invisible boy. Cope, at least, can call him "Dan." Few in Snyder's employ enjoy that privilege. A man more than 10 years his senior who once called him Dan, rather than Mr. Snyder, was chastised for it.

Such stories, along with accounts about his taste for the grandiose in a plebeian world, bolster the image of a young Napoleon taking command of Washington's most storied sports empire, trying to secure his place among the team's flamboyant generals.

George Preston Marshall. Edward Bennett Williams. Jack Kent Cooke. Aloft in their owners' box, surrounded by senators and Supreme Court justices, they were men whose personas were as oversized as their ambitions -- huge winners at life who, on Sunday afternoons, took a city along for the ride with them.

Now, after a six-year playoff drought, Redskins fans are desperate for the team to return to glory. Snyder vows it will. But the young owner is looking for acceptance while dogged by stories of his impulsive style and imperious nature.

A rumor circulated on opening day that, while others sat stuck on roads for hours, Snyder helicoptered to Redskins Stadium. Not true. He rode through traffic hell like any other fan, with his father and his best friend, just like in the old days -- except that he has a driver now, and personal worth of a half-billion, and burgundy velvet seats waiting on the 50.

"The days of sitting a long, long ways away from the field -- those days are over," Snyder had said a week before the season opener, reluctantly reflecting on those modest days when he and his dad needed binoculars for a decent game-day view of the team he now owns. "We got here."

Here is not Redskins Stadium. Here is an ineffable place -- success, shiny status, a Shangri-La where Snyder has dreamt of being since his teen days, much as others fantasized about becoming rock stars and football heroes. His boyhood was a long limbo spent in shadows -- a period when few classmates paid the short, slight kid any attention, when schoolbooks could not hold him, when school sports were beyond him.

But money mesmerized him -- he left class at 11:30 each morning to go to work in a stream of jobs. "Some people who are no longer my friends tried to give me bad advice to be a normal person, a normal student," he says bitingly. "I ventured out to be different."

Those who know the college dropout best say he gave off more than a faint whiff of desperation -- an attractive feature to the moneymen who befriended him.

"What made me decide I wanted to invest in him and be a partner when he was just 22 or so was that he was a `PSD' -- Poor, Smart and Desperate to be rich," recalls Redskins minority owner Fred Drasner, a publishing magnate who helped arrange financing for Snyder's first huge business success. "He was the ultimate PSD who wanted nothing more in life than to succeed. That kept you with him even in the tough times. He would go 24 hours a day, fly to three cities a day. He could not allow himself to lose. He wanted OUT."

The young man's dreams had taken shape much earlier, back in the days when he and his father watched their beloved Redskins from up in the nosebleed section. The Snyder family -- father Gerald, mother Arlette, older sister Michele and young Dan -- lived in a Silver Spring apartment, and a gulf separated them from the barons to whom the boy was drawn. Sometimes, at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, he would glance across the chasm toward the owners' box, the game-day throne of Jack Kent Cooke, the perch where monied men and bejeweled women mingled with the Redskins emperor.

The box looked otherworldly to the dazzled boy. "I'd just watch and imagine what was happening in there," he says, quickly returning the discussion to the present -- the past being a place he goes only when dragged. " . . . Sure, sometimes I still can't believe it's happened. . . . But now we need to concentrate on now. I don't look back much, or get satisfied. What brought me here was always looking ahead, the next step."

The odds for success seemed long, especially when, in 1988, his college magazine bled nearly $3 million from unhappy investors led by Mortimer Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News & World Report. But Zuckerman did not abandon Snyder, helping to fund his next venture, Snyder Communications, which specialized in marketing services to Fortune 500 companies. Now Snyder's company exceeds $800 million in annual revenue, and Zuckerman is a minority Redskins owner.

"He wills success," Drasner said. "That's why I think he'll turn around the Redskins. He'll do whatever it takes. Whatever."

He has fired 25 people in the front office already. "There was a culture here before we arrived that obviously wasn't producing results," Drasner said. "There was a malaise. . . . We'll not accept losses as something you just live with."

All this is an oblique knock at the Cookes, pere and fils, echoed by many in the new organization, including its top man. Beyond purging his stadium of the Cooke name, Snyder has not sought to conceal his contempt for the managerial ways of his predecessors, offering that, under John Kent Cooke, the Redskins organization resembled a "rudderless boat bobbing on the ocean."

Having tossed the Cookes on the ash heap of history, Snyder ascended an elevator into the owners' box earlier this month, settling back to enjoy Day One at Ground Zero. But football games are volatile affairs, oblivious to corporate directives. His team covered itself in glory through three quarters, then blew up in the fourth before collapsing in overtime.

"I will not tolerate losing," Snyder said a few days later in his 15th-floor office in Bethesda.

To make that point, he had appeared in the rain at his team's practice the day before, sidling up to head coach Norv Turner, whispering and animatedly gesturing, according to witnesses. "I'm not telling anybody there about what plays I want," Snyder said. "I'm just there to observe. . . . But I think it's important I'm there. I don't lead from behind the curtain."

Told the next day that some assistant coaches were reportedly nervous about their futures, Snyder casually commented, "They should be."

The room went quiet. An aide looked at his feet. "Why should anybody be comfortable with defeat?" Snyder demanded. "Those aren't the type of people we want to be Redskins . . . A Redskin is only satisfied with victory."

He turned to the aide, abruptly grinning. Wealth affords the right to be mercurial. " `A Redskin is only satisfied with victory.' That's a good line, isn't it?" Snyder said to the subordinate. "WRITE THAT DOWN."

He laughed robustly.

Two afternoons later, the Redskins crushed the New York Giants. "It was a great first win," Snyder said afterward, then served notice that, even so, no one should get too comfortable on the job because "it's only one game. We now need to show what the Redskins can really do. I expect it. We're absolutely" playoff-bound.

Asked what the first victory meant to him, he paused, sighing as if to suggest he was being probed too deeply. "We all had a good day. We came prepared, and that includes me."

What he meant is, he wore his lucky belt buckle.

To understand the new owner, one must grasp the importance of his treasured Redskins belt buckles. As a boy, he sported a cheap metal one imprinted with the portrait of an Indian. It was but a trinket to Daniel Snyder, in the way that Rosebud was just a sled to Charles Foster Kane.

"It was such a cheap buckle, a little thing," he says, his voice trailing off. "But, you know . . . "

He loved it. He loved it in the way a man can only love a piece of himself -- as a symbol of his identity, a talisman meant to deliver the team he adored to victory.

He needed something in those days. Overlooked and ignored, he floated into and out of schools without leaving a footprint. Teachers later wouldn't be able to recall him. "I was a dreamer and a worker bee," he explains.

His journalist-father led an itinerant life, the family trailing along. Young Dan formed his closest bond with his sister, now 36 and an executive with Snyder Communications.

Elementary school was in the Maryland suburb of White Oak, followed by a two years in England, junior high in Forest Hills, N.Y., and high school back in Montgomery County at Woodward, which no longer exists. The nomadic existence limited the young man's contacts and marked him as a perpetual outsider.

"I wasn't one of those kids into the social scene," he says, sitting in an aide's office at the team's Northern Virginia training facility. "I wasn't the, uh," -- he shouts at a pack of aides -- "hey, what do they call the big guy at the prom?"

"Homecoming King," one of them pipes up.

"No," he corrects. "Prom King is what they call it, right?" He looks around. Silence. He'd like an answer. He didn't go to the prom; he didn't go to anything. These guys probably went to everything.

"Right?" he persists.

The underlings nod. He rushes on. "Anyway, I wasn't the Prom King. I wasn't voted Most Likely to Succeed either. I wasn't voted Most Likely Anything. But I probably would've liked to have been. Yeah, who wouldn't?"

Make no mistake, he's the King now. People from the old high school try to make contact; he doesn't remember them and doesn't believe they could possibly remember him. Student lockers at Woodward were arranged alphabetically, and the girl with the one next to Snyder's can scarcely recall him. "He seemed to be a loner," says the former Patti Snider, now Patti Evans. "All that I remember is that he was a skinny, short kid with a lot of hair . . . He was just one of those kids who disappeared at Woodward."

In truth, he was nothing like one of those kids. He began working in a bookstore at age 14, intent on becoming "one of the great entrepreneurs," as he tells it.

He always had a zest for competition and an eye toward acquisitions. In high school, when introduced to Tony Roberts, who would soon become his best friend, Snyder sized up a girl Roberts was dating and, as Roberts remembers, "started hitting on her . . . He was just a very determined guy when he saw something he wanted.

"He had an idea what was out there for him. `I am going to be a great businessman' -- he said it all the time."

He was serious beyond his years, especially about two things: money and the Redskins. Autumn Sundays found him parked on a blanket that his mother arranged in front of the TV set for an indoor picnic, the boy silently eating her chili while staring at the television, his concentration absolute.

Roberts recalls once cheering and jumping around the TV after a big Redskins play, and Snyder yelling at him in exasperation: "Can you shut up so I can watch? I need to see this."

"It was like he took the jumping around personally, like he had a stake in the game," remembers Roberts, an ophthalmologist in suburban Maryland. "I cared if the team lost, but it didn't ruin my week. For Dan, a loss was like a nightmare, like depression."

Snyder's life since has been spent distancing himself from those memories, but he hasn't forgotten his old belt buckle. It's tucked away in his manse in Bethesda, where he lives with his wife, Tanya, and their two daughters.

His newest Redskins buckle says more than anything else about the psychic distance he has traveled. A few weeks ago, as he sat waiting to fly off to an exhibition game, Drasner -- 22 years older and an avuncular figure in Snyder's life -- popped into the room and gestured at his shiny buckle, engraved with the Redskins logo.

A visitor asked if the buckle was a replica of Snyder's beloved childhood possession.

"Are you KIDDING?" he exclaimed, clucking his tongue, tugging on his belt and hoisting his pants to show off his newest buckle, the ultimate buckle, a buckle that makes buckle number one look like something out of a gum machine. "This is from New York. A jeweler did this," Snyder said, smiling broadly. "This is silver."

Drasner groaned, distressed that such talk might leave the impression of a silly young man enamored of his pricey baubles. "You don't want to say that," he admonished Snyder, then turned to the visitor. "That's off the record," Drasner commanded.

Snyder's head bobbed back and forth between Drasner and the visitor. "Yeah," he nodded. "That's off the record."

The old friends stared at each other, Drasner shrugging, suspecting it was too late to take their words back.

His energy borders on mania at times, which does nothing to dent the impression some have of him as imperious. He'll field five calls while doing a news interview -- deal-making, networking, prodding, talking at a pace others struggle to match. "Hello? Hello? Go ahead, go ahead. Give it to me, give it to me."

There are frequent written directives to Redskins personnel from "Mr. Snyder." One recently announced that "there will no longer be access to the locker room" for players' families, who now must obtain passes to wait for the team in a postgame tent.

On game day, Snyder appears uncomfortable with the attention trained on him. His seat may be better now, but little else has changed from those days when he watched on TV, demanding that his friends and family hush up.

"Once the game begins, he cares only about the game," Roberts says. "He's not socializing. He's not any less restrained than he was in the past; he's still screaming sometimes, cursing. He can be short with you during a game. He DOESN'T WANT ANOTHER BEER, he'll say. He just wants to focus on the game."

He's not looking for camaraderie. "There are a thousand people who've worked with me who think I'm a [expletive], and that's just the way it is," he said to the associate rebuked for calling him "Dan."

"Oh, I think I know who you're talking about," responds Snyder when asked about it. "Did I fire that person?"

Told no, that the individual still works for him, Snyder frowns in puzzlement, denying that he insists on unreasonable deference from employees, then putting his finger on what he views as the preferable business relationship.

"I'm not looking for them to be my buddy," he says. " . . . This is a serious mission. I'm a serious camper. . . . Look, I've had a few experiences with Redskin people already where . . . they think I'm not serious because I'm young. But I'm absolutely demanding. You bet."

What happens next? Does Daniel Snyder make the Redskins his life mission? Is total fulfillment as close as a Super Bowl ring?

Roberts doubts it. "He could have sailed into the sunset a long time ago, a half-dozen different times, and with millions and millions," Roberts says. "He didn't. He needs the challenges. He likes eating stress for breakfast . . . There will always be the next thing. But I don't know if he loves anything as much as the Redskins."

One needs only to look at the young owner's fascination with his belt buckle to know the grip this venture has on him. In ways mystical and sometimes inexplicable, even astoundingly well-to-do men desperate to flee their origins are sometimes drawn back to that patch of innocence when they were on the cusp of fortune.

The Redskins and the belt buckle are Snyder's ticket back. "I put it on and all these things hit me again," he says. "But we need to win to make it complete."