RICHMOND -- Barry Word has been cooling his heels a lot these days. He has had time to think, to contemplate life without football, to speculate on his future. Just when he was bursting with energy and hope, he was sent to the sidelines, his career on hold.

It was a discouraging setback. But it beat what he went through in 1986.

A year ago, Word also was cooling his heels. But then he didn't know he'd be going back to work when the NFL players strike ended, as it did last week. Last year, Word was waiting to go to prison on drug charges.

The New Orleans Saints' media guide devotes four lines to Word and places him in a group of "Other Saints for 1987" that trails listings of the team's veterans and rookies. Besides the basic information of height, weight, age, etc., the guide simply says, "Did not play football last season."

No elaboration is provided. As far as he's concerned, none is necessary.

"I hit bottom before I knew it," he said recently. "That's life. Right now, I'm pretty happy with myself. Some people hit rock bottom and stay there. Some people hit rock bottom and say, 'Hey, this isn't me.' "

The third of three brothers to play football at the University of Virginia, Word seemingly had everything going his way in the fall of 1985. He was a senior, and his 1,224 yards rushing set a school record and earned him recognition as the Atlantic Coast Conference's player of the year.

He flirted with academic problems and was declared ineligible before the 11th game of the 1985 season. Later, he was expelled from the school for an honor code violation that involved alleged cheating on a psychology exam.

In 1984, Word began using cocaine. Later, as a minor player in a Charlottesville cocaine ring, he transported the drug. Finally, in January 1986, he was confronted by police and confessed his role.

Several weeks later, Word tested positive for marijuana at an NFL pre-draft workout. The Saints took him in the third round, anyway.

On July 30, 1986, Word appeared in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville and pleaded guilty to distributing less than a kilogram of cocaine. He was one of 36 people -- including teammates Howard Petty and Kenny Stadlin -- convicted. On Oct. 3, Judge Harry Michael sentenced Word to five months in prison and three years probation.

Three weeks later, Word was placed in the maximum-security lockup of the Taylor County (W.Va.) Jail. He remained there three weeks, then was transferred to the Robert F. Kennedy Center, a minimum-security federal facility in Morgantown, W.Va.

"It was awful," he said. "It was about as bad as you can get. All of a sudden, I wasn't the Barry Word other people know. I was a Barry Word only people on the inside knew. It's not a place to be. I don't like to talk about it.

"Before I could start feeling really bad, I started making plans about what I was going to do," said Word. "Like I said to myself, 'Let's start working out, let's start working out like a bandit.' I did that. Then I said, 'Smile once in a while.' I kept my chin up."

Two weeks before his March 12, 1987, release, the Saints contacted him. On April 16, Word signed a three-year, non-guaranteed contract. The terms included no drug-testing clause since Word is subject to random tests by federal parole officers during his probation. If he were to test positive, he'd immediately return to prison.

"Barry's history is history," said Saints Coach Jim Mora. "What I'm seeing now is a guy who made a mistake, paid for it and wants to move on. He's a smart kid with physical ability. You can't have too many of them around."

Word was converted to fullback by the Saints and is second on the depth chart behind Buford Jordan, a free-agent refugee from the now-defunct USFL. Word also is the backup kickoff return man. Against the Philadelphia Eagles Sept. 20, he lost two yards on his only carry and returned a kickoff 17 yards.

"I can't lie," he said. "Tailback is the position to play in an offense. Fullback is less glamorous. It's a workhorse-type thing. But, hey, good things can happen from there, too."

He shrugs. "I can't think about where I'd be if I'd played last year. That's history. I'm just damned glad I'm here right now. It made me feel good to know the Saints thought enough of me to find out about me. There are a lot of other places I could be out there, a lot of other jobs I could have, but I'm happy I have this job."