TUCKER, ARK. -- Willie Fears returned to the Arkansas state prison's maximum security unit at Tucker last week.

A month ago, Fears was just another one of the correction officers guarding hard-core inmates from 6:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. Four days on, three days off, three days on, four days off.

Pretty routine stuff. Well, not exactly.

There's nothing routine about Willie Fears.

Fears, 23, spent his last three weekends as a defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals. When the NFL players went on strike, the Bengals summoned the 6-foot-4, 280-pound Fears. He used his vacation time to play for the replacement Bengals.

"Willie's like a real true, breathing success story to the inmates," David White, spokesman for the state Correction Department, said.

After the regular players ended their strike, the Bengals released all of their replacement players. Fears promptly reported for duty at Tucker on Monday night.

"They all wanted to know about it," Fears said, referring to the inmates. "They told me that if they were going to bet they would have bet on the Bengals. Of course, they probably did bet, but they're not supposed to. That's something you really can't control."

Fears played at Holmes Junior College in Mississippi and Northwestern State in Louisiana. He played five games for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League in 1985. He was invited to a Miami Dolphins minicamp in November, but was admittedly out of shape and didn't excite the Dolphins coaching staff.

The soft-spoken Fears had hoped to work at Tucker for a while to save enough money to return to college and some day fulfill his dream of becoming a high school coach.

"Well, this is sort of like being a coach," Fears said. "You get to work with people and show them that there is a better side to life. They might have made a mistake, but I like to tell them or try to show them that they can make a plus out of their life once they get out."

Fears, more because of his personality than his size, has had little trouble controlling inmates.

"I basically get along with everybody," he said. "I'll listen and let them blow off a little steam to see if they have a legitimate argument, but if they keep it up I'll write them up. If anything, they might mess with me a little more because of my size. Then they could go to court and everybody would be saying, 'Why would that big guy be messing with that little bitty guy, anyway.'

"I remember when I first got back, this one guy came up to me and said, 'You're 23 and you been out playing pro football. I'm 23 and I'm doing time.'

"I'll never forget that. It was like that guy was saying he was sorry about the route he took. Maybe they can look at me and say, 'Look at big ol' Fears, he made it in the NFL.' So maybe some other good things can come out of this."

Some good things have already happened. As a correction officer, his salary is $14,000 a year. He was paid about $3,800 for each of his three replacement games, which enabled him to buy a car and put some money aside for his education.

He also enjoyed his time in the spotlight. "He was a media star," said a Bengals spokesman. "Everybody wanted to interview Willie and he came across real well."

Said Fears of his time in the NFL: "I knew it was going to be short term. I've been out of the spotlight a lot longer than I was in it . . . I got a big break and I was happy for that chance."