Bill Bergey was 36 in February and there's not much left in his knees. He missed 13 games two years ago because of major knee surgery and hobbled through last season because the Super Bowl was in sight.

Now, as the Eagles wind down their training camp here at West Chester State College, the four-time all-pro linebacker spends his days swimming and working with weights. He's not ready to run and he faces at least three more weeks on the injured-reserve list.

But Coach Dick Vermeil is far from distraught. In fact, he said today that his defense is better now than it was last season when it allowed the fewest points (222) in the league.

With 10 starters returning, the only way the defense could improve is if the newcomer is better than the man he replaced. That's exactly how Vermeil feels about Al Chesley, a former three-sport star at Eastern High in Washington who will be playing in Bergey's spot in next week opening game against the New York Giants.

"I think we'll be a better defensive team this year," the coach said between practice sessions. "Al is a lot more effective at 100 percent than Bill at 85. So far, he's fitting in very well."

There was a time when Chesley didn't fit in at all with the Eagles. He wasn't drafted until the 11th round, despite an outstanding career at Pitt, and threatened to play in Canada before finally reporting three years ago.

"I had the wrong attitude," Chesley admitted. "When teams came to school to watch me work out, I didn't keep the dates. I never ran a 40-yard dash for anybody. I didn't like to run sprints for every scout that came by. When the Eagles came up to time me, I didn't show.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd be a half-hour early and run for everybody. I found out that if you don't, the word spreads quick. I went about it the wrong way. The pros don't care about honors in college. They want to see you work out and, when you don't, they go on to somebody else."

After leading Pitt in tackles for two straight seasons, Chesley was a consensus all-East selection and, at 6 feet 3 and 240 pounds, considered an ideal pro prospect.

"I thought I'd go in the second or third round; that's what people kept telling me," Chesley said. "When I didn't get picked the first day (through six rounds), I couldn't believe it. I'll never forget, it was raining, but I went out and ran around the track for an hour. It was the only way I could get rid of the frustration.

"My family -- 10 brothers and sisters -- is still in D.C. and I really wanted to get picked by the Redskins. They needed linebackers and I had always dreamed of playing at RFK.

"Finally, I got picked on the 11th round. What a blow. That's like being a free agent. I didn't have an agent, so when Toronto called me, I decided to play in Canada. They were offering a lot more money and I knew I would play.

"After I visited up there, I called the Eagles to tell them I was staying in Toronto. Carl Peterson (the Eagles' director of player personnel) talked me out of it. He told me all the benefits of the NFL and said my mother couldn't watch me on TV if I played in Canada."

Chesley showed up here three years ago and, despite his lowly status, made an instant impression with his aggressiveness and tackling. Although the linebacking corps was well-established, with John Bunting, Bergey, Frank LeMaster and Jerry Robinson, the rookie earned a spot on the special teams.

"He was a solid hitter and a quick learner," Defensive Coordinator Marion Campbell said. "He worked hard and had an outstanding year on the special teams."

His first summer was not an easy one. Chesley knew there were no jobs open at linebacker and that his only chance of making the roster was as a special teams player.

"They take a lot of pride in special teams here and they demand a lot," he said. "But at least I had my foot in the door, and thank God, I stayed healthy. I didn't miss any practices and tried to be as coachable as possible. I made some good hits in a rookie scrimmage against the Colts and wound up making the team."

It was more special-teams work for Chesley last season, although he was the backup for Bergey and LeMaster. Both veterans held up all season, however, and Chesley's only action, except for occasional spot duty, came after Bergey strained his knee and sat out the final three quarters of the last game in Dallas.

Now, everything has changed. Bergey's knee didn't hold up during two-a-day practices and no one here is counting on him this season. Chesley has started every preseason game and has the job until he loses it.

"To follow a player like Bill, well, that's like replacing an institution," said Chesley. "When I was a kid and I thought of linebackers, I thought of (Dick) Butkus and Bergey. Then, when I got to the pros, he's the guy who helped me, he and Bunting."

"Al is a hitter and also a learner," said Bunting, a former North Carolina star who also played scholastically at Springbrook in Silver Spring.

"The only thing Al lacks is game experience, but he's going to have plenty of help, both from the sidelines and on the field. I don't mean we'll have to cover up for him. I just mean talking between plays and alerting him to special situtations."

Bunting and Chesley are good friends and have a mutual respect. Playing the left side, or strong side, they will carry a heavy burden against the run this season.

"John is a hell of a defensive player," Chesley said. "He's our quarterback out there. He's always alert to any type of formation that comes up. It's nice to have a guy like him next to me. He helps me so much and frees me up so I can play a little more recklessly, and I like that."

After six weeks of two-a-day practices, everyone anxiously awaits the opener a week from Sunday. Chesley is thinking farther down the road. About 125 miles. To RFK, in his old neighborhood.

The Eagles will play there Dec. 6, when he will realize his dream. He'll be playing professional football in his hometown, and he hopes the whole family will be there.