CARLISLE, PA., JULY 24 -- Kelvin Bryant stepped on a football field for the first time in nearly a year this week, and for two days the Washington Redskins have seen him slither out of the backfield to grab passes, go chin-to-chin with linebackers and look very much like a guy who hadn't missed a minute of football.

When the Redskins see him in these situations, when they see the package of strength, size and speed all working together, when they think of what he could mean to their team . . .

It's hard for them to believe it hasn't always been this way. It's hard for them to believe he may not be around in December to add another dimension to an offense that's already one of the NFL's best.

"When he's healthy, he's the best I've ever seen at coming out of the backfield," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "He's a guy that can be a real valuable part of your football team."

When Gibbs talks, it's evident he would love to be able to add Bryant to an offense that has Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders catching the ball, Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs running it and a maturing Mark Rypien throwing it.

Except the Redskins have had this recurring dream for about three years. In it, Bryant looks great in July, hits the sidelines in August or September and is barely heard from again.

Once upon a time, they figured Kelvin Bryant, signed out of the USFL for $3.75 million over four years, was going to be one of the best moves they ever made. He came to them when they were a player or two away from being the dominant team in football.

Four years later, he has shown his tantalizing talent only in flashes -- running up 200 yards of offense against Dallas in 1988 and 210 against Green Bay two weeks later. His 406 rushing yards led the Redskins in 1987 and for a five-week stretch in 1988, he pretty much was the Washington offense.

When he went down with a knee injury in week 10, he led the Redskins in rushing, receiving and touchdowns.

Yet there has always been disappointments, the stretched knee ligaments in 1986, another knee injury in 1988 and, finally, a 1989 auto accident that caused a herniated disc and discovery of an irregular spinal alignment that nearly ended his career.

That's when the story gets complicated. If the Redskins ever believed Bryant had a low threshold for pain, if they ever believed he didn't really want to play the game, they had only to watch him last season.

"I've never seen anything like it," Gibbs said. "Here was a guy that was hurt, and who knows for how long?"

Doctors told Bryant he might not be able to play again, and yet knowing that, he "attended every meeting, kept his head right in the games and remained a part of our football team," Gibbs said. "That shows you something. The guy is super smart as far as football and he was right there to answer questions for the young guys or make suggestions."

Tight end Jimmie Johnson from Howard University said: "He didn't have to be there, but he wanted to help out any way he could. He was there to answer questions and to point out things we might not have seen."

Still the Redskins doubted he would play again and felt even more strongly after the season when two doctors refused to clear him to play.

Bryant urged his agent to keep getting medical opinions, and finally he went to see the doctor many sports people consider the best in the country at evaluating such injuries -- Robert Watkins of the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles. This was a few days before last spring's minicamp at a time when the Redskins seemed set to announce Bryant's release.

"He gave me a pretty thorough going over," Bryant said, "and a few days later, phoned and said he had cleared me to play. Everyone said this man was the best, so you had to think he knew what he was talking about. I just didn't know how to take it. I was happy, but then you wonder because it has been so long since you heard any good news."

The Redskins, hesitant at first, finally agreed that if it was okay with Watkins, it was okay with them.

There still may be cynicism in the organization about how much he'll play this year. In fact, the Redskins will make a decision on his football condition before deciding whether to keep him around for a $700,000 base salary in 1990.

"He's going to have to take a few hits before we know," Gibbs said. "The best way to make these decisions is just to let them go play."

Bryant always has been reluctant to discuss his injuries or much of anything else, but this week, seemingly elated about playing football again, he opened up a bit about his career and what he can add to the Redskins in 1990.

"I'm ready," he said. "Right now, I'm just glad to come back and get one practice under my belt. I think if I keep working hard, I'll be ready when the season starts. It's been a long time, but I worked hard this summer."

He appears to have worked very hard in the weight room, where long sessions with strength coach Dan Riley have produced a set of watermelon-sized biceps.

"Never lifted much before," Bryant said, smiling. "I just didn't do it in college and the USFL. . . . I'm not sure they had weights."

He said 1989 "was real frustrating. When you get an injury like I had, you have to take it one day at a time. It's not like you're going to go out and work harder and get it ready to go. It won't work that way.

"I tried to look at it like I was still part of the team last season. I went to the meetings because if younger guys had something to ask, I wanted them to ask me. Sometimes they feel more comfortable asking another player instead of a coach."

In the past, he has resisted being typecast as a third-down specialist. Not this year, not in a season when he knows Riggs, Byner and James Wilder will get most of the carries out of the backfield.

He'll turn 30 early this season, hasn't played in almost two years and will take what is given him.

"If it's a third-down back Coach Gibbs wants, that's what I'll do," he said. "I know we've got a lot of running backs here and they're all going to want the ball. Everyone may have to wait their turn. I'm not giving up on the idea of being the No. 1 back, but the role they have in mind may be different."

At the moment, both he and the Redskins will just take one more season uninterrupted by injury.