On a braided gold chain that hangs low around his neck, wide receiver Gary Clark wears the two most important symbols of a fledgling career:

The key to his Washington Redskins training camp dorm room.

And a sparkling Mercedes-Benz charm, which, he says, "lets me know what I'm working for."

As a rookie in the U.S. Football League two years ago, Clark treated himself to a used, cream-colored Mercedes. He finally paid it off two months ago, about the same time the Jacksonville Bulls got caught in a financial jam and dropped a few six-figure salaries, Clark's included.

Now, he says, "If I want another (Mercedes), I've got to make this team."

Last year, during the National Football League's supplemental draft of players in the USFL and Canada, the Redskins made two decisions that have altered the complexion of the early days of preseason camp.

They drafted kicker Tony Zendejas of Nevada-Reno and the Los Angeles Express in the first round, and Clark, who comes from James Madison University, in the second.

The Redskins signed them in the spring, Zendejas to battle veteran Mark Moseley and Clark to match footprints with the triumvirate of Art Monk, Charlie Brown and Calvin Muhammad, who are scheduled to arrive at Dickinson College Monday, along with quarterback Joe Theismann.

"I know what those guys can do and I know that they'll be here when the final cuts are made," Clark said today on a rare day off from practice. "But they'll take four or five receivers, I think, so I figure that as long as I do everything right, I can make it.

"What have we had, two days of practice? Two days and I haven't gotten yelled at yet."

If Clark makes the 45-man roster, he would beat everyone but cornerback Darrell Green and perhaps Muhammad in a 40-yard foot race. His time is 4.4 seconds.

After watching films sent up by Larry Csonka, Jacksonville's director of player personnel, General Manager Bobby Beathard is convinced Clark has good hands. He also is smart, Beathard says.

Feet, hands, brains . . .

"I just think he's an excellent prospect," Beathard said.

What's more, in the Redskin-of-all-trades mood that pervades this camp now that the roster size has been cut by four players to 45, Clark fits in quite nicely. Although he worked his way into the James Madison record book as a receiver, his favorite game came as a punt returner.

Early in the Virginia game in 1983, his senior year, he fielded a punt at his 13-yard line, went right, then left, and breezed into the end zone for an 87-yard touchdown.

In the second quarter, this time from his 11, he raced left, then cut back and went untouched the final 50 yards for an 89-yard touchdown return.

"I was on top of the world," he said.

When Clark went to the pros, he also returned punts. At least, he tried.

"My longest punt return was 28 yards," he said, smiling. "No long returns. No blocking, either. I was running for my life."

On Saturday, he found himself once again shagging punts, this time from free agent Dale Walters, Jeff Hayes' sole competition in camp. The coaches expect eventually to compare Clark's performance to that of reigning returner Mike Nelms.

"I'll do anything they ask me to," Clark said, "but I like catching the ball from a teammate's hand better than catching it from someone's foot."

He was the sixth player selected in the 1984 USFL draft. When his agent called to tell him, he was watching television in his parents' home in tiny Dublin, Va., down near the Appalachians.

"I didn't even know the draft was that day," he said. "When my agent said I was taken sixth, I thought he meant the sixth round."

But Clark, who said he grew up with change in his pocket but very few bills, quickly got acclimated to the new league. He was offered a guaranteed contract of about $100,000 in 1984, and a little more in 1985, although that was not guaranteed. Out of college, he had planned to teach school.

"The 100 grand suddenly looked a lot better than the 12 grand a teacher gets," he said, laughing.

He caught 56 passes for 760 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Bulls during his rookie year. But he was slowed by hamstring pulls early in the '85 season and had only 12 receptions through nine games before he was waived.

Jacksonville has the expensive habit of attracting high-priced quarterbacks who don't play a lot: Brian Sipe, Ed Luther, Ben Bennett, Buck Belue, Matt Robinson. Clark caught passes from all of them, then finally caught grief as the owners looked at their books and decided it was time to loosen the financial load.

"I got fired on my 23rd birthday (May 1)," he said. "It came as a total shock to me."

But Beathard, sitting in his office at Redskin Park, had his fingers crossed. He was hoping Clark would clear USFL waivers (he did) and become available to the Redskins. When that happened, the Redskins signed him to a two-year contract with a signing bonus of about $50,000.

"He was good at James Madison and got even better in the pros," Beathard said.

This early in a football season, a team and its players become a mutual admiration society. The Redskins and Clark are no different.

"He's doing very good so far," says Beathard.

"This is about the best thing that's ever happened to me," says Clark.

It will stay that way as long as the Redskins don't ask for his room key.