He was new to Washington, and built like the company store. You saw him walking around some supermarket or shopping mall and wondered what it was he did for a living, a man 6 feet 2 and 270 pounds.

His job paid good money, but every night after work he went to a house in Herndon, a place he'd rented, and fell asleep on a mattress on the bedroom floor. He was the quiet type and never did say much, except when he called his wife, Patty, in Pittsburgh. She still lived there. He wanted her to come down but she wanted to stay because she was expecting their first child, and she liked and trusted her doctor.

"Was it hard?" he said almost a year later, almost in a whisper. "Yeah, it was hard. It was real hard."

Rick Donnalley joined the Washington Redskins last preseason after toiling four years in the shadow of Mike Webster, one of the game's great centers who is now in his 12th year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

You noticed the way Donnalley, who had sprained his knee against Dallas a few days before being traded to the Redskins for a future, middle-round pick, carried himself with a slight limp. At meetings, which involved the kind of head work that either made you sleepy or made you want to pull your hair out, he took notes. Meticulous notes. Joe Bugel, who coaches the offensive line, said you acquire a man like that and you know you've got something.

"You know you've got a good pro," Bugel said.

Last week, Donnalley started training camp here at Dickinson College as the Redskins' first-team center, replacing Jeff Bostic, the all-pro who severely injured his knee last year and is in his sixth month of rehabilitation.

Bostic's immediate future still is uncertain, although he said earlier this summer that he probably would return during the sixth or seventh week of the season. Today, he said, "It's still up to me. I'll know when I'm ready." His coaches, who regard him as the heart of the line, have encouraged him to "do it at his own pace," as Bugel said.

"When Jeff does come back, both he and Rick will be in the lineup," Bugel said. "I think Donnalley's that good. The most logical thing for us to do is move him to guard, probably in the place of Ken Huff, who's a good swing man for us and who accepts and enjoys that role . . . But Rick's got the kind of ability that demands you give him a place out there on the field."

Bugel said Bostic may be in condition to return for the Sept. 9 season opener in Dallas. "But if it's more than three games," he said, "we'll be forced to put him on that list where they have to miss four games before you can come back (injured reserve)" . . .

Donnalley's wife and daughter, Courtney, now 10 months old, moved to the Washington area last October, a week or so before Donnalley was thrust into the starting lineup when Bostic went down.

"When they came," he said, "so did the good luck. One thing about being here that's rough, I miss my little girl. I wonder what she's up to . . .

"But one of the good things about it is that I'm rooming with (reserve quarterback) Jay Schroeder. He doesn't do a lot of complaining because he's never that sore. When I used to room with other offensive linemen, all we did was complain how sore we were and that would make us feel even worse."

Last year, Donnalley hobbled on the sprained knee for little more than a week. Once during that period, Coach Joe Gibbs met with him and said, "Don't worry. We know you can play. Just let that leg heal and come practice with us." His first start was against the New York Giants, and he said then that he only hoped he could go the entire afternoon unnoticed, the dream of every offensive lineman.

He ended up starting nine games, but says this year "my goal is to start 19 games, but I don't know if at guard or center . . . Whether Bostic and I could battle it out at center, I don't know. We don't talk about it, but we know there's a challenge ahead."