Dexter Manley's football life will begin anew in Phoenix, where Cardinals Vice President and General Manager Larry Wilson said yesterday they have claimed the 32-year-old former Washington Redskins defensive end off waivers and have signed him to a contract for the remainder of the season.

Manley, who on Monday was reinstated by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue after a year's banishment for three positive drug tests, will begin practicing with the Cardinals and head coach Joe Bugel, a former Redskins assistant, on Friday at 11 a.m. Bugel pushed the hardest for the Cardinals to sign Manley.

After this year Manley will become an unrestricted free agent.

Manley will spend Thanksgiving in Washington and on Friday fly to Phoenix, where the Cardinals will immediately give him a physical examination.

As part of the conditions of his reinstatement, Manley cannot play until Dec. 9 when the Cardinals play in Atlanta. According to sources one of the reasons for the two-week roster exemption (until Dec. 3) is to allow the NFL's new drug counselor, Lawrence Brown, to devise a structured counseling program for Manley. The program will include at least twice-weekly drug testing.

New England, which currently has the league's worst record at 1-9, had the first chance to claim Manley, but passed. Phoenix and Cleveland, both 2-8, would have had to flip a coin for Manley but the Browns did not put in a claim for him.

The Cardinals must pay Manley $120,000 for the final four games, the prorated portion of his $480,000 base salary.

An excited Manley said he was happy Phoenix gave him a chance to live on the football field again. "I feel a sense of burden off my shoulders," said Manley, whose wife was a student at Arizona State University.

"I'm excited. At the same time, I spent a lot of years with the Redskins. This is very painful. I love the city of Washington. I have some fear. It's very difficult to make a change. I want to make my contribution and do some things in the community.

"I felt and hoped this day would come," he said. "It was so long and dark. Everybody needs hope. Persons with cancer need hope. Workaholics need hope. It wasn't easy. It was very traumatic.

"Everybody wants to feel wanted. Everybody would like to be a free agent. But that's behind us. I wasn't a free agent. I was picked by Phoenix. I'm very grateful to come back. I feel honored the commissioner took my reinstatement into consideration and put trust in me. Hopefully I'll never violate {his trust} again. This is a new beginning. I feel fine. I don't have a problem today.

"The best is yet to come."

Manley also addressed the pain of leaving the Redskins, his team of nine years. He said he truly felt Washington was going to take him back. But Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs didn't feel it would be fair to other Redskins defensive linemen who have been with the team all year if Manley was brought back. Privately the Redskins also say they don't trust Manley.

"Deep down in my heart I wanted to be a Redskin," Manley said. "Every athlete wants to finish where he started. I was part of three Super Bowls. . . . That gave me a sense of greatness. At the same time, I feel so grateful I'm back. I was upset by Coach Gibbs's decision. But he knows what's best."

The Cardinals were satisfied with Manley's progress since he failed his third drug test a few days after Washington's 37-24 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders on Oct. 29. Phoenix also was convinced Manley was sincere about staying away from drugs.

Also, sources said the Cardinals felt Manley could contribute immediately and aid a defensive line that carries just five players. Manley is the Redskins' all-time sack leader with 96 1/2. He had a team-record 18 sacks for the Redskins in 1986. The entire Cardinals team has only 20 this season.

Phoenix checked on Tuesday with people close to Manley to see if Manley has stayed in shape throughout his year-plus layoff.

"There was a lot of decision-making involved," Wilson said. "We felt with the interest expressed by other teams, it was best for this team to make a claim in order to improve itself.

"We realize there is some controversy. I feel he is a person who's had some big problems and has whipped them. A lot of people have whipped problems and gone on to be very productive in society. We and Dexter realize it's an ongoing problem. We will be very supportive."

"I have choices now," Manley said. "I have freedom. Choices give me freedom. I wasn't willing to make changes before, or to sacrifice. I felt I didn't have a problem. I didn't use drugs daily. I was in denial. Today I want to be an asset to myself. I'm truthful and honest today. I can look in the mirror and face Dexter. No one caused my problems but me. I'll survive. Believe me, I'll pull myself up by my bootstraps and get going again.

"I don't worry about {anything}. When I come back, trust me, I'll pick up where I left off. . . . I'm clean and sober."

Manley was asked if he thought the wrong message was being sent to the public by his reinstatement.

"That's what this country is about: giving people chances," he said. "I'm an American, I deserve a chance at life. I've lost a little of my dignity and trust. I have to earn it back. I have a lot to prove. You never beat coke forever. It's an ongoing process.

Special correspondent Chris Cobbs contributed to this report from Phoenix.