Ever since becoming a member of the Washington Redskins last year, Dexter Manley has joked about wanting more publicity.

"I want everyone to know my name," he would say with a laugh.

Last week, Manley, the talented defensive end, got publicity, but not the kind he anticipated. He was arrested for impersonating a sheriff's deputy and altering a license plate. Because he is a professional football player, the arrest was well reported.

"I know people might have the wrong impression of me now, that I'm some kind of bad guy or something," Manley said yesterday. "And that bothers me. What I did was wrong and I wish it hadn't happened.

"I didn't need that kind of publicity. I want people to think I have a different kind of morals than that. This has taught me what it means to be a Redskin in this town. Everything you do is watched and if something goes wrong, you hear about it. I did harm to myself, to my friends and to the Redskins by what I did. I learned from it and I hope nothing like that happens again."

The Redskins hope so, too.

"Dexter is not a bad person, not even close," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "He's extremely well-liked here and everyone enjoys being around him. He knows right from wrong, but he made a mistake this time and I think he's learned from it. Anyone who thinks he is some sort of criminal just doesn't know Dexter."

Manley is friendly, happy, outgoing, a sometimes naive man who has undergone a difficult transition from college to the pros. He grew up in the third ward of Houston, the toughest part of that city. After he was drafted by the Redskins, he suddenly had more money than ever before.

"It's been difficult at times," he said. "I come from a good family life, but maybe if my father was still here (he died five years ago), he'd be on me a little more. When he died, I had to learn right from wrong on my own. I had to take on a lot of responsibilities.

"Coming here was a big adjustment. I had to learn my way around and, just as important, I had to learn to choose my friends and who to associate with. And that's pretty hard. I was only 21. I've had to learn by experience."

One of those experiences was the arrest. Manley's Mercedes-Benz 450SEL bore temporary Texas tags that were due to expire Dec. 6. Worried, he said, that he would not get new tags in the mail in time from his agent, he changed the expiration date to Dec. 10 "just to have more time. It was dumb."

When he was stopped, the arresting officer also noticed that Manley, a deputy in the offseason at the Fairfax County Detention Center, still had his badge even though he was no longer working for the county. That led to the charge of impersonating an officer.

"I wasn't trying to impersonate an officer," said Manley, who has been teased heavily by teammates. "I had asked about the badge, but no one ever told me to turn it in. The officer and I didn't hit it off too well and it probably cost me in the long run. I should have accepted what he said without arguing with him, but I thought he was treating me like a 2-year-old.

"I have nothing to hide, because I wasn't trying to do anything wrong. But I could have had a totally different approach with the officer, that would have been a smarter thing to do. I apologized to him later, because it was the wrong approach. As a Redskin, I always have to watch what I do off the field."

He has had other, vastly different off-field experiences. Between seasons, Manley participated in some of the Bible study classes that Coach Joe Gibbs helped organize at an inner-city juvenile home. Manley also talked to prisoners at Lorton Reformatory.

"Dexter has a big heart," Gibbs said. "He certainly has gone out of his way when I've asked him to help others less fortunate than himself. He wants to do what's right. He's got a winning smile, a great way about him.

"He got mad (about the arrest) and he reacted. It happens to all of us. But he learned from it. The one thing I think is important for Dexter is to be around the right people . . . be in the right environment. He has to realize he has to be careful what he says and what he does. To some people, a football player is someone to admire. But to others, a football player is someone to treat antagonistically. He has to remember that. I know, though, he wants to go in the right direction."

The arrest has overshadowed Manley's vast improvement as a player. Two years ago, he was a linebacker at Oklahoma State. Now, blessed with 4.5 speed for 40 yards and unusual quickness, he is becoming an accomplished pass rusher from a three-point stance, a major transition. He has the talent to be a dominating rusher, something the Redskins have lacked since Coy Bacon was released.

"I don't want to be an average player, I want to be known as one of the best," Manley said. "Hopefully, that's how people will remember me later, and not for what happened last week."