NEW YORK -- Now Dexter Manley must sit and wait. Maybe he has a feeling, maybe he doesn't. He said he feels "very optimistic" but his attorney advises him that "cautiously optimistic" might be a more prudent position. All the evidence, oral and documented, is in. Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, is judge and jury. He will return a verdict on Monday, though sources indicated Friday that Manley most likely will be allowed to return to the league.

Dexter Manley, if you could pour truth serum into him, would tell you he fully expects Tagliabue to allow him to resume his career after a year's suspension for drug use. We all expect that Tagliabue will let Manley back. But he would be the first drug policy violator to return after only one season of suspension. As attorney Bob Woolf said: "We take nothing for granted. We understand the pressure the commissioner is under in making the decision."

So begins the longest weekend of Manley's life.

"Mr. Woolf is my adopted dad for the weekend," Manley said, squeezing Woolf's shoulders like a roll of Charmin as the two emerged from the meeting. "Actually, it will probably be just about the same as that weekend last year. The thing that was different about last time was I already knew the verdict."

He was referring of course to another trip to Park Avenue, when a positive drug test -- for cocaine use -- forced his suspension from the league. There wasn't a lot of suspense.

He said he wasn't living in the past, though, and he wasn't going to think negative thoughts like the possibility that Tagliabue would say no. "I've been disappointed before," he said. "But one of the things that's different is that I'm positive about life. I'm positive about myself. I'm positive about the fact that the commissioner let me come here and state my case."

The hour-plus meeting was closed, but it is not hard to imagine the essence of what was said. Manley said he has worked hard to get his life in order and Tagliabue wanted to see proof. Woolf and Manley offered everything they had, documents testifying to the details of Manley's aftercare and rehabilitation and a physician's written prognosis. We assume Tagliabue wanted to know as much about Manley's future as his past. There Manley had no proof to offer, only sincerity. "I told him that there's been a lot of growth on my part," he said.

Like everything else that has happened to him since age 18, this chapter of Manley's drama was played out in public. When he and Woolf stepped out of the front doors of the NFL office on Park Avenue this sun-kissed day, nine TV cameras awaited, as did 20 or so reporters. Giants fans stopped by. Cabbies parked their cars on a busy Friday to listen to Dexter.

"Hey, you gonna play for dem damn Redskins?" one man dressed in a Giants jacket shouted out.

The new Manley, Diplomat Dexter, answered very carefully. "I'd like to leave all my options open," he said.

Assuming he is reinstated, he will have plenty of options, but playing again for the Redskins probably won't be one of them. The Redskins have had every chance to say they want him back and haven't. They will waive him Monday, and then some team will claim him. If not Joe Bugel in Phoenix, then his old college coach Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. If not the Cowboys, then the Rams. And if not the Rams, then the Eagles.

"I'd like to have him, yeah," Buddy Ryan said. "If his salary is what it was in the paper {$480,000 base}, we'd take him. He's still a helluva football player."

The Redskins don't think so. The coaches thought he had gone straight downhill since the Super Bowl three seasons ago. Even if they concurred with Ryan and thought Manley was a great player, they wouldn't take him back. They feel they can't count on him, that he has let the team down too many times, like the last drug offense (November 1989). A dozen Redskins were hurt, but Manley went out and took drugs, then got himself suspended. What the Redskins probably wish is that they had waived him over the summer, which would have enabled Joe Gibbs to avoid all those "distractions" at a critical point of the season.

The Redskins' position is understandable. It is not, however, especially compassionate.

Manley was sick. He had a drug problem. He didn't think to himself, "I'm going to go out and betray my teammates now; to hell with them." He may have been sick, but he is not mean or vindictive. He has spent his adult life fighting himself -- sometimes publicly, sometimes destructively -- in an effort to make himself a better person.

I want to see him back and I'd like to see him with the Redskins, whose team leader in sacks this season (Wilber Marshall with four) has exactly one more than Manley had in his last game against Randall Cunningham.

It's really not possible to quantify what a splash of color means to a team. Spontaneous players, men like Dexter and Riggo, the old Jim McMahon and Howie Long, are the X factors. When things are gray -- and it's hard to get any grayer than the Redskins are right now -- they often provide the spark a team can't find through conventional means. Has there been anything precious to come out of a Redskins locker room since, "Uh, I didn't spit on him, I sneezed"?

We won't find out if he is that man for the Redskins, because he almost certainly will resume his career someplace else; how about with the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas, lined up on the right side on third down going against Jim Lachey?

Those of us who find Dexter irresistible, those of us who root for him, who want to see him sober and who want him to return to the NFL because that is what he wants, hope his weekend of anxiety results in a reinstatement on Monday. And we want to say to him one more time, "Dexter, please don't mess this up."