Six weeks in jail, being charged with a murder you didn't commit, will give you time to think, time to learn, time -- as Derrick Fenner said yesterday -- to "plan on becoming a different person."

However, only more time, lots more time, will tell whether the mistaken indictment really will wise up and set straight one of the most promising football players in America.

Yesterday, as Fenner spoke for the first time about his six-month ordeal and his future hopes, the former Oxon Hill High School and University of North Carolina star seemed contrite, reformed and determined both to restore his good name and resume his athletic career.

"What I'd really like to do is go back to North Carolina and finish what I started," he said.

"Prove myself -- to my family and the public -- and show people I'm not a murderer, not that type of person."

If only wishing would make it so. Not even Fenner really knows how this story is going to end.

On one hand, he said "the worst is behind me. . . . I'm thankful and overwhelmed . . . Anytime there is a chance of a conviction, of spending the rest of your life in jail, even if you're innocent, it's horrible. It's impossible to explain {the feeling}."

On the other hand, Fenner still faces trial Jan. 25 on drug and gun possession charges. Police said they found 25 vials with cocaine residue in Fenner's coat, plus a .38 pistol under the driver's seat when they stopped him as he drove a truck that belonged to a friend.

The good news is that police and prosecutors are now convinced that Fenner was nowhere close to the scene of a drug-related shooting spree in the Kirkwood projects in May that left one man dead. When prosecutors drop charges after they already have an indictment in hand, that's even more formidable evidence of innocence than a not-guilty verdict. It means they're certain they got the wrong man and don't want to put him through the agony of a trial.

The bad news is that for several months before his arrest in June, Fenner had been hanging out with the kind of people you usually see only in a Charles Bronson flim. Two of his friends soon will stand trial for two murders, including charges of the premeditated killing of a potential prosecution witness.

"I learned a great deal. Drugs and athletics, the street and drugs, drugs, period, is not the way to go -- doing or selling," said Fenner, who later added, "How do you find a friend? It's really hard choosing."

At least Fenner had a better fate than the University of Maryland's Len Bias, a comparably talented basketball player, whose friends helped lead him to death by cocaine overdose.

"I didn't connect it then. I was blind then," said Fenner. "Now, I really see the comparison. Old friends with less talent trying to bring you down. . . . You have to step back and look at your so-called friends and evaluate."

Much in recent years has redounded to Fenner's discredit. His North Carolina career was marked by breaches of rules and run-ins with then-coach Dick Crum. After leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing (and being fifth in the nation) as a spectacular but frequently disciplined sophomore, Fenner flunked out. Left behind were memories of his bragging and girlfriends, his candy-red BMW with car phone and his flashy taste in clothes. At 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, with 4.5 speed, he looked like a pro among kids. He'd rush for 328 yards one day against Virginia and look like the next Eric Dickerson, then miss a bus or practice the next.

"It's on me, flunking out of school," said Fenner, an admission many coddled star athletes never make. "The tutors were there. I'd say, 'Later. I'm going out tonight.' I felt that I could ease by. . . . Becoming a {public} figure, I was caught up in that. It was one of my problems. . . . Sometimes it's even harder for a star student athlete."

Don't get the idea that Derrick Fenner is now Harry Humble. He's still full of himself. He showed up for his news conference in flashy duds, a geometric pattern of black and white leather and velour, with a sequence of red arrows encircling the waist. He still thinks he'll beat the misdemeanor charges against him and then the colleges will be lined up to ask him to come win a Heisman Trophy for them. His casual asides make it clear he hasn't a doubt in his mind that he could start for the Washington Redskins on Sunday. And maybe he could.

His lawyer says a suit to make the NFL let Fenner turn pro before his college class graduates is an option. "I can picture myself doing many things in pro ball," said Fenner.

"With the dismissal of this murder charge, there will be many schools and conceivably some {NFL} teams willing to take a chance on someone with Derrick's integrity and talent," said Fenner's lawyer Fred Joseph. "This is not a street bum we're dealing with."

No. But he's no man of integrity yet, either. Fenner has an enormous amount to prove. Almost all of it outside a football field.

In the last six months, Fenner has lived out a universal nightmare. The police knock on your door, ask where you were the night of so-and-so, you get your story a little tangled and before you know it, you're in jail for weeks, indicted for murder and see your face on the front page. Then, it turns out it really was somebody else.

For this, Fenner deserves some sympathy. But, all the circumstances considered, not too much. He also deserves another chance -- in society and in football. But, to be blunt -- so a man-child long pampered understands the real score -- maybe only one more.