If Lawrence Taylor isn't the finest all-round athlete in the National Football League, he is certainly one of the wealthiest. He lives with his wife and two children in affluent Upper Saddle River, N.J., in a $400,000 house with a $36,000 Mercedes and $35,000 BMW in the driveway. The house is a dandy: five bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths on an acre of wonderfully landscaped property. There is a Doberman pinscher to guard the grounds, a maid to clean the floors and a live-in former teammate to look after the kids.

Who could ask for anything more?

There is more: Taylor is the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. He will earn $750,000, or $46,875 per game, playing outside linebacker for the New York Giants this season. Next season, his salary will increase to $850,000, then to $900,000, $1 million and $1.1 million. If that isn't enough, Taylor also has the use of a 25-year, $1 million loan. Interest free.

Who could ask for anything more?

There is more: Taylor's investment portfolio includes interests in Arabian horses, Holstein cattle, a sports representation agency, a house in Virginia, a hotel in New Jersey, and a horse farm and apartment complex in southern California. At one point last year, he had between $400,000 and $500,000 in a New Jersey bank account. Ready cash. As for walking money, Taylor has needed only to snap his fingers: in 1982, for example, he earned $37,500 for wearing a brand of shoes, $20,000 for endorsing a chewing tobacco, and $7,500 for signing autographs at a bar mitzvah.

Who could ask for anything more?

Today, Lawrence Julius Taylor is asking for something more. Help.

On March 20, in a statement released through the Giants, Taylor surprised some of his closest friends by disclosing that in recent months he has been seeking "professional assistance" to combat a "difficult and ongoing battle" with "substance abuse."

The announcement did not surprise Giants and NFL club officials, who had suspected for more than a year that Taylor was abusing alcohol and cocaine. For more than a year, Giants Coach Bill Parcells also had expressed concerns about Taylor's off-the-field habits and associates, including a friendship with a New Jersey bar manager who has a criminal record.

In his statement, Taylor did not reveal the exact nature or cause of his problems and, in a recent phone conversation with a Washington Post reporter, he declined to discuss any aspect of his life, including his football career.

But from interviews with Taylor's friends and associates -- and from testimony by Taylor in a little-known court case -- a picture emerges of a small-town athlete who has been overwhelmed by the enormity of his big-city success.

"Lawrence Taylor lives in the fast lane -- the serious fast lane," a long-time friend of Taylor's recently observed. "If we lived the way Lawrence does, maybe we'd have the same problems he's having now, who's to say? But before you judge Lawrence Taylor, you have to look at the road that he has traveled."

A Player Possessed

He grew up in a four-room frame house in Williamsburg, Va., the second-oldest of Clarence and Iris Taylor's three sons. His father was a shipyard worker who could afford only to provide for his family's basic needs. "I couldn't spend money on candy and stuff," Taylor once said. "I didn't have it." At times, Taylor stole to get what he needed. "Sometimes I had to," he admitted.

He didn't play high school football until he was a 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior. "At first, the other kids were just head and shoulders above him, and I looked for him to pack it in any day," recalled Melvin Jones, a coach at Williamsburg's Lafayette High. "But he hung in there, and by the middle of his senior year he was playing like he was possessed."

Although he had grown to 6 feet, 210 pounds, Taylor was never a darling of college recruiters. "Being a late bloomer, even Norfolk State didn't talk to the kid," Jones said. "But one day a North Carolina coach came by the school, just looking around. When he saw Lawrence on film, he offered him a scholarship, even though his grades were right on the borderline."

In Chapel Hill, Taylor struggled to attain an identity. "Having only played two years of high school ball, I'm not sure he had the respect of the guys at first," a former Tar Heels coach recalled. "So Lawrence felt that he had to prove himself -- and to act out the image he thought a football player should portray."

"The image was mean and nasty," said North Carolina assistant coach Bobby Cale, a former teammate of Taylor's. "As a freshman playing on the special teams, he'd jump a good six or seven feet in the air to block a punt, then land on the back of his neck. He was reckless, just reckless."

Off the field, Taylor figured the same image would fit nicely. "Lawrence always talked about gaining respect," said Steve Streater, Taylor's roommate for three years, "and we'd always juke him about how he wasn't getting respect at this bar downtown. So one night Lawrence walked into this bar and busted up everything -- chairs, glasses, everything. That's what he thought it took to gain respect." (The bar owner at the time recalled that Taylor threw a chair against a wall, but added that Taylor was generally well behaved.)

By his junior year, Taylor had won respect: in 11 games, he terrorized opponents with 80 unassisted tackles, five quarterback sacks and seven fumble recoveries. His teammates nicknamed him Godzilla. "He even had a bodyguard," Streater said, laughing. "If we were going to the club where there were a lot of people, Paul Davis a teammate, who now lives with Taylor and his family would open up the way for him, saying, 'Let Lawrence through.' "

Once he was through, Taylor was determined to have a good time. Often with alcohol.

"Lawrence could put away a case on a night," Cale recalled. "I mean, 24 cans of beer. And still have a lot of spunk left. I've seen him do it . . . . And if we ran out of beer, we'd start chugging wine. Sometimes we'd be up almost 24 hours doing that."

"I thought he could have a drinking problem," said former North Carolina linebackers coach Mel Foels. "At the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston his senior year, he showed up for practice early one morning with a hangover. Hell, I could smell it on him, so I just got on his butt and ran him more and more. Finally, he threw up."

Understandably, Taylor, who majored in Industrial Relations, wasn't setting any classroom attendance records.

"We used to joke Lawrence about how the only time he'd come on campus was when it snowed -- so he could have a snowball fight," Streater said. "But Lawrence didn't need to go to class. All the women gave him all the notes he needed. So he'd just read a little bit here and there, pass the tests, then go uptown and have a good time."

"He's a very intelligent individual, but he was really there to have a good time," said Foels, who is now coaching at Tennessee. "He was also a con man. He could talk his way into and out of a lot of things with the professors. He'd say, 'I had this problem, I had that problem.' Most of the time, when I had to get hold of him, I called the pool hall."

Foels said he never worried about Taylor's academic progress. "He would always say, 'Don't worry about it, coach. I'll get my 2.0. The professor doesn't take roll,' " Foels recalled. "He was one kid about whom we just said, 'Hey, we're not going to worry about it. He'll do it. He'll get it. He'll be eligible.' "

Taylor remained eligible, although he did not earn a diploma. "Lawrence told me he didn't need a degree," Foels said. "He said, 'Coach, I'll make more money playing football.' " And who could argue? As a senior, with opponents running the ball away from him, he had 55 unassisted tackles, 16 sacks and three fumble recoveries. Now a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder, he was a consensus all-America, a certain first-round draft pick and the target of agents.

Taylor said in a 1981 interview that he was wooed by "women, drugs, money, everything." He added, "That turns me off. I used to try a little of this and a little of that until I got real sick. With better judgment I learned to stay away from it."

On April 26, 1981, the Giants made Taylor the second overall pick in the draft. Two days later, he asked to be excused from the club's minicamp when Streater, who had just signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins, was paralyzed from the waist down in a car wreck. Taylor rushed to his roommate's bedside. "People like that cannot be forgotten," said Streater, now the North Carolina coordinator of Students Against Drunk Driving.

Taylor signed a six-year, $1.35 million contract that included a $250,000 bonus. Out of the bonus, he said he paid a $100,000 fee to his agent, Mike Trope, gave a total of $10,000 to members of his family, bought a three-bedroom house for his parents, and began sending $700 each month to his mother for "being my mother."

At the Giants' training camp, teammates called him "Superman" and offered to replace his locker room stall with a phone booth. Faster than a speeding quarterback, more powerful than your average offensive lineman, Taylor quickly became the toast of the Metropolis. He was named all-pro that season, the following season and every season thereafter.

Taylor couldn't ask for anything more -- except, perhaps, peace of mind.

Pressures Off the Field

On March 29, 1982, his former girlfriend, Kathy Louise Davis, filed suit against him in the Orange County (N.C.) District Court, seeking support payments for a child he had fathered in Chapel Hill.

While the case was being litigated, Taylor married another college sweetheart, Linda Cooley, bought a gold Mercedes, built a dream house, and set out to make the most of his fame and fortune.

He passed some of his time at The Bench, a boisterous go-go bar in Carlstadt, N.J., in the shadows of Giants Stadium. Somehow, Taylor felt at ease at the bar, where women take turns gyrating on a platform bathed in red and amber lights.

"This is where everybody on the Giants' team went," recalled Brian Kelley, a former Giants linebacker. "It was the first stop. After games and after practice. You stop and you have a few beers. You go to any team, and as soon as practice is over I guarantee you that 10 or 12 players will go to a certain place and drink."

Taylor established a close friendship with the bar's manager, Vinnie Ravo. "Lawrence and I have gone out, taken vacations together, and socialized together," Ravo said. "His family has been to my house for Christmas. I've been out to dinner with him many times. We're very close."

But their friendship apparently disturbed Parcells because Ravo has a criminal record that includes felony convictions in New Jersey for larceny and receiving stolen property. The latter conviction came after police found a stolen, fully loaded, nine-millimeter automatic handgun under a floorboard in Ravo's attic.

" Giants coaches know The Bench has all the possibility of becoming a bad joint, a type of joint where a drug guy would hang out," Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall said, adding that Parcells has told players, "Don't make yourself too visible in this place." Marshall described The Bench as a "strip joint where a lot of guys go to have fun and laugh and get as drunk as possible." Parcells declined to answer any questions concerning Ravo. Ravo's lawyer, Miles Feinstein of Clifton, N.J., said, "Vinnie has nothing to do with drugs. If Taylor had any problems, Vinnie was not responsible."

New Jersey law enforcement officials interviewed by The Post also had concerns about professional athletes hanging out at The Bench. One reason is that Frank Scaraggi, who has been identified by law enforcement authorities as a major sports betting figure and an associate of Genovese crime family soldier John DiGilio, has been a customer at the bar. Feinstein said his client knows Scaraggi. "Vinnie doesn't throw out people and say, 'Hey, are you a member of organized crime?' " Feinstein said. There is no indication that Taylor has associated with Scaraggi.

Ravo said he is not associated with any illegal activities. "I think Parcells is a fat hyphenated epithet ," he said. "I wish you could put that in the paper. I don't really give a damn because I'll spit in his face." As for Taylor: "L.T. is a friend of mine, so what's the big deal? My bar isn't the only bar that L.T. has gone into. He must've been into 500 bars."

While Ravo was awaiting sentencing on the receiving-stolen-property charge, Taylor was being questioned about his assets by lawyers representing his former girlfriend. In a deposition taken on July 21, 1983, Taylor said of the financial interest he has in his agent's company, " It's like a savings account. It's my money. They keep it there. I get some interest on it . . . around 15 percent maybe." Of his horse ranch, he said, "I guess it is a horse farm, a breeding farm. Not a breeding farm, but just a place where they graze and stuff." Asked for the name of the ranch, he said, "I don't pay attention to that."

As he sat in a lawyer's office in Chapel Hill that afternoon, Taylor seemed uncertain about his future as a professional athlete. "I might not play at all this season ," he said. "I might be tired of football."

That summer, Taylor refused to report to training camp until his contract was renegotiated. He relented only after the Giants promised to discuss his contract at season's end.

In the midst of a dreadful season (the Giants would finish 3-12-1) Taylor received a message to call Jim Gould, an adviser to New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump. "There's a possibility of a million dollars in your pocket within a week," Gould told Taylor, "but you've got to be in my office in an hour. Do you think you can get free?"

An hour later, Taylor, dressed in an elegant dark silk suit, was in midtown Manhattan, having lunch with Gould in the marble atrium of Trump Tower.

"Lawrence looked sharp," Gould recalled, "but the suit jacket was a bit tight on him, and one of his buttons kept coming off. I kept watching him fiddle with this button, and I got the impression that this wasn't something that he wore all the time. So I think he was hungry and ready to go with the deal."

Taylor hired a Washington, D.C., lawyer, Richard A. Bennett Jr., to negotiate a contract that would pay him $3.25 million over four years, starting in 1988, when the option year of his Giants contract expired. The deal also provided him with an on-the-spot $1 million interest-free loan and a lifetime $100,000 annuity that would begin in 1998.

Taylor celebrated his new fortune by flying to the Bahamas with Ravo. "We just went out there to fool around," said Ravo, who was still waiting to be sentenced.

On returning, Taylor learned that the Giants had countered with a six-year $6.55 million package that also included a $1 million interest-free loan. This deal, negotiated by Trope, was contingent upon Taylor getting a release from the Generals. Trump obliged, but only after Taylor returned the $1 million loan with $10,000 interest and agreed to make a $750,000 settlement over several years.

With Ravo's sentencing date approaching, Taylor wrote a letter on Giants' stationery to Passaic County Superior Court Judge William J. Marchese. The letter read in part:

" . . . I have had the sincere pleasure of knowing Vinnie for the past (3) years. I am aware of his family life and his relationships. Based on that knowledge, I must tell you that he is a sincere and devoted man who is a hard worker and cares very much for his family life at home . . . .

"Vinnie has always been there when I needed him for personal advice or just someone to talk to. I trust him with my life because he has always been to me an honest, sincere, and kind person . . . I think it would be a tradgedy sic to have this man go to jail . . . . Please consider this before you sentence him and I know that you will do what is right."

The judge sentenced Ravo to three years in prison. (He would serve 10 months at the Leesburg, N.J., state penitentiary.)

By the 1984 season, Taylor's fast-track life style had been a topic of conversation among NFL club officials. "We were hearing that he had a terrible drinking problem and a cocaine problem," one club executive said. "Some of his teammates said they were scared to death to be with him in a car." Taylor was again selected all-pro, even though he made only 3 1/2 sacks in the last 12 games.

On Feb 20, 1985, an Orange County (N.C.) District Court judge ordered Taylor to pay Davis $900 a month in child support, $11,000 for back payments, and to purchase a house for his child, Whitney Taylor Davis, that costs between $70,000 and $90,000. Taylor also was ordered to pay $43,000 of Davis' legal costs, the child's medical bills and private-school tuition, and to provide a $250,000 life insurance policy. (Taylor has appealed the order to pay the legal costs.)

Taylor refused to talk to the media when he reported to last season's training camp. When he finally granted an interview, he said he had spent the offseason traveling and playing golf. "Golf is just like drugs," he said. "Once you start it, you can't stop it."

As the season progressed, writers covering the team noticed a marked change in Taylor's personality. One day, he was spotted dozing on a couch in the Giants clubhouse. Another day, he was seen weaving his Mercedes around the steel drums that section off the players' parking lot. His on-field performances were equally erratic. In one three-game stretch he made a total of only eight tackles. But in a game against the Redskins, his two-sack, 11-tackle effort helped the Giants to a 17-3 victory. "I prepared well for this game, got some sleep and didn't go to the bars as much as usual," Taylor explained. Some writers wondered whether Taylor was serious when he said that. Sadly, he was.

Not Knowing Where to Turn

When Lawrence Taylor admitted last month that he was undergoing treatments for "substance abuse," some of his closest friends were surprised. Others weren't.

"Lawrence is mysterious in that something like this could happen," said Dylan Pritchett of Williamsburg. "There must be something he's trying to get in his life that he's not getting."

"To me, Lawrence is a 27-year-old built into a 19-year-old who's got a lot of money," Steve Streater said. "Lawrence has got a good head on him, he knows what he's doing, but there are just so many things that come across his desk every day, he doesn't know where to turn."

In New Jersey last week, Giants General Manager George Young said he was closely monitoring Taylor's progress. Yes, said Young, he fully expects to see the linebacker at next month's minicamp.

"Lawrence has got a setback right now," Young said, "and he'll get as much support as we can give him. But he has to help himself. And right now, that's what he's doing. He's helping himself. You couldn't ask for anything more."