He grew up in a tough part of Southeast Washington. He was an athletic legend at Anacostia High School and a three-sport star at Boston University. He graduated to the NFL, where his 12-year career included 447 pass receptions, 44 touchdowns, four major operations, a degenerative disk in his back that still plagues him and a reputation for outspokenness.

And now, Reggie Rucker, 37 years old, a successful NBC football analyst who has spent most of his professional life in New England and Cleveland, has a very simple goal: he wants to come home.

But the road back may be even more winding and difficult than Rucker's extraordinary trip out of Southeast.

Rucker, entering his third season as an NBC analyst for NFL games, succinctly describes life on the other side of the Anacostia River: "It seemed they sent everybody with nothing there."

Now, at the network level, where it seems they sent everybody with something to prove, Rucker is battling to reestablish his worth after a bizarre incident last year with Cincinnati Bengals Coach Sam Wyche.

Rucker's broadcasting career began in 1978 when he was playing for the Cleveland Browns. "I was a star. I had access," he explains simply, and he decided, like many other athletes, that his physical gifts could translate to sportscasting success.

But he didn't expect to just pick up a microphone and handle it as deftly as a football. He "went by the numbers," taking two university extension courses from the late Sidney Andorn, a pioneer in Ohio sportscasting.

He scored immediately. From 1978 to 1982, he hosted a game day show on WHK, the Browns' flagship radio station. In 1982, he began a Sunday night wrapup show on the NBC-TV affiliate in Cleveland. Also in 1982 -- his first year of retirement from the NFL -- he hosted a weekend sports show on WWWE radio. In 1983-84, he completed a rare broadcasting switch -- he did color on Cleveland Indians televised baseball.

His big break came in May 1983 when he auditioned for NBC-TV. He was hired, and week by week, game by game, NBC's sports executives were growing excited about Rucker's brash style.

Then came the incredible, almost inexplicable Wyche debacle.

Rucker was working the Cleveland and Cincinnati game Oct. 21, 1984. During the broadcast, Rucker mentioned that Wyche had told him he didn't have too much confidence in recently acquired running back James Brooks because Brooks had not learned the offense. Rucker also mentioned that he had dinner with Wyche the night before.

Rucker had not had dinner with Wyche the night before.

"Reggie Rucker is a blatant liar," Wyche said upon learning of the dinner remark. "I've spoken to him maybe twice in my life . . . Reggie Rucker is somewhere approaching mediocrity in what he does."

Rucker admitted he had lied and apologized. He stood by his Brooks remarks, which he said came from a chat with Wyche that morning.

"My mistake was being young and trying to be a hit in this business," Rucker said. "You recognize this is the big leagues. This is where it all happens. This is the network. There's all types of visions of grandeur.

"The dinner thing was just a fashionable way to introduce the material. Everyone did it like that in the business. But not anymore, not since my thing. You don't hear anybody going to dinner anymore . . . I found out there's never any excuse to not be 100 percent accurate in the broadcast business."

The mistake cost him. "There were bigger days scheduled in 1984 for Reggie Rucker," he said, "and it doesn't take a space scientist to realize that that comment derailed that rise."

Rucker did not work another Bengals game in 1984. NBC stuck with him, however, and even though he was knocked down a peg or two, he's back for another season. What's more, he will work today's Bengals game in St. Louis.

(When he found out about the assignment, Rucker called Wyche and invited him to come to an NBC production meeting. Wyche suggested they meet for dinner, and yesterday, they were to share the meal they missed one year ago. Proper etiquette in this situation probably called for Rucker to pick up the check.)

This season, Rucker is trying to resolidify his reputation. Rucker, never the bashful type, will tell you he's good and why he's good. He regards many other analysts as apologists for mediocre players.

"Everybody's not great. Everybody's not brilliant," he said. "I like to separate the thoroughbreds from the plowhorses early on. If you're a player who's afraid to play and I'm the analyst, I detect it very early on."

His confidence carries over to his desire to return to Washington as a sportscaster. He's hoping to come to WRC-TV-4, where George Michael is entrenched, with no immediate plans of vacating his video empire.

"I'd like to come home, most definitely," Rucker said. "I have inquired through some sources about going to the NBC affiliate there. In D.C., they're always concerned about ethnology. They might be looking for black faces who can bring something to the market . . . "

"I am the sports director," Michael said. "He's not approached me. I'd look at his tape, but to be quite honest with you, I'm happy with the development of (Redskins tight end) Rick Walker and his work with us."

But for Rucker, such details as Michael's presence almost seem of little concern. He used to run blindly and dangerously into defensive backfields, taking shots from all sides. He's ready to bust inside the Beltway, rush hour traffic or not.

"I intend to make a strong comeback in 1985," he said.