Even Art Monk, the Washington Redskins' first first-round draft pick since 1968, had to steal a peek at defensive end Mat Mendenhall's huge frame when he sauntered into a press conference yesterday at Redskin Park.

To Mendenhall, it was an accomplishment that he is able to walk.

"I know I'm lucky to be alive," said Mendenhall, a 254-pounder from Brigham Young who was picked in the second round by the Redskins. "I'm 100 percent healthy now, but it was pretty heavy for a while. It was touch and go for a week."

Last summer, Mendenhall ignored some stomach pains, thinking they might be ulcers, and went about his business. He finally consulted a doctor six weeks later, and found out he had a ruptured appendix.

"Athletes have a tendency to shrug off small pains like that," said Mendenhall. "When I found out, I kept asking myself, why me? Why is God letting this happen to me at this time when my career is getting ready to start? Fortunately, things turned out okay."

After two operations and six weeks of recuperation in the hospital, Mendenhall was pronounced fit. But he didn't have the type of senior year he wanted.

"I missed the first three games of the year and played a quarter or a half in the next few," Mendenhall said. "I didn't get strong enough to play full time until the final three games of the season."

Rated as a top pick by many NFL scouting services before his illness, Mendenhall suddenly became "just another lineman." To everyone but the Redskins. "We were almost tempted to draft him in the first round," said Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard. "But we took a gamble, hoping he'd be around."

"Quite a few teams showed interest in me," said Mendenhall, who is considered an excellent pass rusher. "I'm just glad the Redskins didn't downrate me because of what happened to me. They saw my ability. I started to get a bit worried when I didn't hear anything. I thought Washington had changed their minds about me. Finally, Bobby called. The one team I wanted to play for was the Redskins."

While Mendenhall is considered a "sleeper" in the draft by the Redskins, Syracuse's Monk is expected to be the most exciting Redskin receiver since Charley Taylor.

The 6-2, 209-pound Monk, the 17th player chosen in the draft, has good hands, speed, moves, size and a mature field presence.

Washington thought so much of Monk's skills that it traded wide receiver Danny Buggs and its fourth-round selection to Tampa Bay for cornerback Jeris White.

"He's a young Bobby Mitchell or Charley Taylor," said Beathard. "He was the 12th-rated guy on our board. We thought he would be gone. It took us 10 seconds to take him."

Ten seconds. That's about six seconds longer than it took Monk to get far downfield to make one of his 40 catches for a respectable 17.9 average. He scored three touchdowns. He played receiver his freshman year but was switched to running back for his sophomore and junior seasons. He gained 1,140 yards rushing, caught 60 passes for 883 yards and scored six times those two seasons. He also had career averages of 9.8 yards on punt returns and 21.8 yards for kickoff returns.

"I like receiver. But if it meant helping the team, I could still play running back," Monk said.

Monk, who once considered becoming a decathlon athlete, said he nearly attended Maryland.

"My mother made all the trips with me," said Monk, who is from White Plains, N.Y. "We were down to Maryland and Syracuse. I was leaning toward Maryland but my mother said it would be best if I went to Syracuse."

Monk caught a school-record 14 passes for 188 yards against Navy as a sophomore. A communications and speech major, Monk said he didn't have strong ambitions about playing pro ball until last year.

"I realized I had the talent to go pro," he said. "So I got on the ball.

I didn't get off to good start this year but I improved as much as 50 percent over the last part of the year."