Tony Dorsett stood at the takeout counter of a Tom Thumb supermarket today and ordered a half-dozen chicken wings. As he waited, he said hello to everyone in sight, talked about the Hearns-Benitez fight and danced a little step to some tune running through his head.

The guy behind the counter stopped the music.

"Hey, Tony," he said. "All I want to know is why you order so many chicken wings."

Dorsett gave a Clark Gable grin. "Those wings are for flying, man. Sometimes I think I can fly."

As Dorsett paid for his lunch, he looked a little apprehensive.

In the last year or two, Dorsett has tried to be more careful about what he says. He wants to make himself clear.

"You know, I was only kidding," he said. "I don't really feel I can fly. But sometimes I'm out there and it feels like an outside force takes over. I'll come off the field and someone will ask me if I remember what happened on a certain play and I just won't know. I guess it's just a gift or an instinct.

"One time I was heading into the line with a full head of steam and I saw two guys were about to converge on me. I don't think I saw them. I felt them. So I turned around 360 degrees and cut back out for the touchdown. Those moves aren't premeditated. In the pros, you've got to ad-lib. I guess it's a gift."

Tony Dorsett has always had the gift. At the University of Pittsburgh, he rushed for 1,000 yards in each of four seasons, led his team to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy. And in five complete seasons as a Cowboy, he has gained 6,270 yards rushing, played in two Super Bowls and broken just about every existing Dallas rushing record.

"A runner, pure and simple," Coach Tom Landry calls the man who comes into Sunday's game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium with 296 rushing yards and a 4.4-yard-per-carry average this year.

He has always had the gift -- the ability to know instinctively when to cut inside or outside, the 4.4 speed to justify his intentions and the good fortune to avoid major injury.

But when Dorsett first came to the Cowboys, there were indications that he was not going to fit in. There were rumors that he was arrogant, unhappy with Landry's play calling, chafing under the discipline of the organization.

He punched a bartender.

He missed a practice.

He popped off to the press.

He changed the pronunciation of his name from DOR-sett to Dor-SETT.

These were not the actions of Cowboy heroes like Staubach, Lilly and Renfro. At first, Dallas was cool to him. Sometimes there were boos for Dorsett when he ran onto the carpet of Texas Stadium.

Although Tom Landry insisted today that "the only little problem we've ever had with Tony was the number of times he carries the ball," Dorsett knew something was wrong. And something had to change.

"There were some things that I would have preferred weren't in the paper, but this is a business," said Dorsett. "We kind of belong to the public. They want to know about your personal life as well as what you do on the field. So I had to learn. At first I spoke whatever was on my mind, but I learned there was a time and a place for everything. I learned there were certain ways of saying things . . . Football is a superficial world but you have to take a little control of it, you have to realize it's a fish bowl and get used to it.

"People said I was unhappy here but I really wasn't. Sure, sometimes I think I'd love to play for a guy like Bum Phillips, but I think you get more out of your players with a disciplined system. I'm a guy who does better as a player with discipline."

For more than a year now, Dorsett has been a more diplomatic, reflective Cowboy, something he says he owes to his recent marriage.

"I've matured a lot," he said. "My marriage has brought me a lot of inner peace. When there's a void in your life and you need it filled, you tend to go off, you act a little crazy. But when there's something important in your life, things get better, they calm down.

"I realize now how lucky I've been. Let's knock on wood. I've never been hurt. I was drafted by a team as good as Dallas. Man, that's a bit of fortune.

"Being in my position is a great feeling but it sometimes feels strange. Yeah, you are at the top, people give you all this attention, everybody recognizes you. But you know it's going to disappear. It's scary. So you have to know what you are after.

"I still have goals. I've accomplished a lot as far as rushing titles with the Cowboys is concerned, but I still have a lot of work cut out for me. I want to get to more Super Bowls, maybe win an MVP award, maybe lead the league in rushing.

"I admire guys like Jim Brown and Gale Sayers but I don't think I'm behind anyone in talent. I've been blessed with as much talent as anyone. It may not look that way on some Sundays but I have it. I just have to use it."