Virgil Seay is so quiet that it's difficult to tell whether he's depressed. But take his word for it. He has had better weeks.

"I finally get to start in the National Football League and now this has to happen," he said at Redskin Park yesterday, rubbing his left leg. "The whole thing bothers me pretty bad. I'm not the same person I was this week. I'm not joking around like I used to, and I know I'm not eating as much as I usually do."

Seay, the Redskins' first-year receiver, pulled a hamstring in his left leg last week after catching a 60-yard pass against Detroit. He stayed in the game, caught eight passes for 145 yards (a Washington best this season) and then could hardly sit down in the locker room.

This week, he's not going to play against the Giants. The leg is too sore and he can't do any full-speed cutting. He sees what had been a significant breakthrough disappearing while he is sidelined.

To fully appreciate Seay's anxieties, it should be remembered that he is 5-foot-7, 182 pounds and trying to survive in a land of giants. He already has been cut by one pro team (Denver last season), and he had to wait until the eighth game this year to get his first NFL start.

"To get a start and to catch eight passes two games later, well, it was the happiest time of my life," he said. "It's all I've ever dreamed about. People automatically think you don't have much of a chance because of your size, but if more of us are given a chance in all sports, I think we can show we deserve to play."

That Seay ("please pronounce it 'see,' " he says) is even on the Redskin roster this late in the season, much less starting, probably is a minor miracle. He's too small to make it when measured by accepted pro standards. But he was fortunate enough to sign last summer with a team that didn't have much depth or speed among the receivers.

"Virgil always will have a problem because of his size," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "No question about that. But he's a tough little guy and he's quick. I've been around people like Mel Gray who did pretty well even though they aren't 6-2.

"Virgil flat beat out people in camp. He's the fastest guy on our team. He can return kicks and he puts in good effort. There was no way we could cut him when the time came. But it took us a while to see how he fit in best."

Seay was the No. 3 man in a three-man receiving corps through the first seven games, contributing only three receptions. Then Gibbs decided the Redskins needed more speed and more of a big-play threat on the outside, so he replaced starter Ricky Thompson with Seay and Terry Metcalf.

"When they told me what they were doing, I couldn't believe it," Seay said. "First, I had always wanted to get into the NFL, then I wanted to start. When all of that came true, I just said, 'Thank the Lord.' "

Seay didn't have any catches his first start against New England. But he turned a five-yard hitch pattern into a 51-yard touchdown against St. Louis, then added the eight receptions last week.

"Wouldn't you know it," Gibbs said. "Just as soon as Virgil starts doing what we had hoped, giving us a threat out there after he catches the ball, he gets hurt. That's happened to us so many times this year, a guy goes well and then he goes down. But I think he can come back in a week or so from the pull and still help us."

But even Seay's new status on the squad hasn't changed how his teammates treat the man they nicknamed "the Tasmanian Devil."

"Joe Washington and Terry Metcalf (both 5-10) give me all sorts of trouble," Seay said. "They said they've been the shortest guys on their teams for so long, they had to pass it on to me now. But people have been kidding me about my size for a long time anyway, so I'm used to it."

Seay grew up in Georgia and played well enough in high school to receive scholarship offers from a number of Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conference schools. But he didn't qualify academically, so he attended East Mississippi Junior College before transferring to Troy (Ala.) State College, where he played as a wide receiver and kick returner.

In one game against Livingston, he scored touchdowns on three punt returns (of 70, 70 and 55 yards) and one pass reception. "He did some wild things in college," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "His speed (9.6 in the 100) catches your eye."

He impressed Denver enough to be picked in the 10th round of the 1980 draft. But he was cut in training camp and spent the rest of the year working in a department store, hoping to get another chance.

"I chose the Redskins because I thought they were the best team for me," he said. "I guess I was right because until I got hurt, everything was working out perfectly for me. I'm just glad this isn't the last game of the season."

Gibbs decided to put fullback Wilbur Jackson on the in-season injury list. Jackson, who has had knee problems since the fourth week of the season, aggravated the injury Sunday and must sit out another four games.