CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 10 -- Dave Butz returned to the fold today, as everyone knew he eventually would. He walked onto a football field for the 15th consecutive season as a pro. He didn't look very happy about it. Perhaps he was smiling inside.

"Same old Butz. Like blocking the goal post," said guard R.C. Thielemann, who ran into the oldest defensive player in the NFL a time or two in blocking drills today at Dickinson College.

Butz, the Washington Redskins' prodigal defensive tackle, accepted the team's two-year contract offer of about $950,000 and began practicing this morning. He said he felt rusty, but he looked pretty good, especially for a 37-year-old who is the only man on the Washington roster to have listened to a George Allen pep talk.

Butz stayed out of camp for a week, which hardly was surprising because he has skipped weeks of practice, at the team's May minicamp and previous training camps. Coach Joe Gibbs and Butz talked on the phone two times over the weekend to make sure he would be back Monday. Butz said Gibbs told him "he wanted me and needed me. That's a good feeling."

In his own unusual way, Butz brings stability to the Redskins. He won't be around much longer, another year or two at best, he figures, but while he is on this team he is a scary, enigmatic and respected man. "I was born and bred to play football," he said the other day. It sounded frightening, although he probably didn't mean it that way.

He said his decision to accept the Redskins' offer was not hastened or forced by the fact that defensive end Dexter Manley partially tore a knee ligament Saturday. But Butz certainly was needed by this team. Today, when Gibbs met the press, he beamed about Butz. "He looks to be in the best shape I've seen him in," Gibbs said.

Butz agrees. "I'm stronger now than I've ever been," he said. He has added half an inch to his neck in the last year by lifting weights. His 305 pounds appear to fit his 6-foot-7 body quite nicely. At one recent session, he said, he pressed 700 pounds with his legs 12 times in a row. "I'd like to see someone else do it," he said.

During his holdout, he didn't sit in front of the TV and watch soaps. "It was hot in St. Louis," he said. "We were getting hot water on both sides of the tap. But I was downstairs in my basement, staying cool, on my treadmill. I had a fan blowing on me. {I was} listening to my stereo. But I did get up to 32 minutes of running, which is a long time for a Clydesdale to stay on a treadmill."

When he showed up at the field today, his teammates, some of whom have never met him, cheered and jeered.

"I told them they really blew it," he said later, smiling. "They should have not said anything at all. That would really have made me wonder."

That's the kind of stunt he would pull. He plays all sorts of games. Football is only one of them.

One can only imagine what a quarterback thinks when he sees Butz bearing down on him. Yet Butz has a reputation among some of his teammates for being almost gentlemanly after a tackle.

"I've said, 'Sorry about that,' " he said. "After I knock a person down, I pick him up and say, 'Let's do it all over again.' "

Butz lined up for practice shoulder-to-shoulder with defensive end Charles Mann, who created a stir last week when he talked about Butz's lack of overt emotion on the field. At the time, Butz defended himself by saying he is "inwardly prepared."

Today Butz said: "No comments on that. It's not going to help the team any, so there's no comment on that."

Defensive end Markus Koch said he didn't see any "friction" between the two players today.

The last two weeks were not easy for Butz. He said he considered retiring when "things weren't moving at all" in his contract negotiations.

"I found I was more prepared probably to retire than to come back," he said. "I verbalized it, but my wife said she wouldn't want to be around me. If I retired, she would probably come up to Reston and leave me at home {in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis} because she said, 'I know you're not ready to retire yet.' "

He is the oldest non-quarterback in the league. Why does he still play? "Because I have no other place to go," he said.

Seriously, he said, it's the mental preparation and the desire to perfect his football technique that interest him the most, that keep him going.

"Every once in a while, I get so involved in a game, I can see a play happening before the snap of the ball," he said.

He used to drive to games with kicker Mark Moseley and quarterback Joe Theismann. That car pool has been broken up. His peers are long gone, replaced by players born a decade later.

"There's a lot of faces that go by," he said. "Every time you meet someone and get to know them on your team, and, then they leave the team, you lose a part of you. I've had a couple patches on the inner tube."

After years of rooming with Moseley during the season, Butz now rooms alone. He said the Redskins offered him the privacy of his own hotel room last year after Moseley was waived six games into the season. But at the end of the season, Butz said he received a bill for $236 to cover the difference the Redskins were charged for a double room being used by one person. Butz, shaking his head and smiling, said he paid the bill and left it at that.

This is the first training camp at which he and Moseley have not been together. Last night, as Butz turned out the lights in his dorm room, he remembered his old pal. "I said, 'Good night, Mark.'

"And nobody answered."