TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Dexter Manley is a mountain of a man, 6 feet 5, 260 pounds or so. But as big as he is, as physically imposing as he can be, the body is never what you notice first. The face, that's what you always see. It tells you immediately whether there is joy or trouble, it gives him away every time.

Sadness has crossed that face too, too often. Like the time he began to read his notes before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on adult illiteracy but was overwhelmed. Or the night a year ago on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington when he was confronted with the news he would be suspended from playing football for at least a year.

When you didn't know whether to believe he was sorry, the face told you he really was. And when he was happy -- when he'd sacked Randall Cunningham for the third time or gotten an offseason job working for a mortgage banking company -- you wanted to know what in the world could make a man so happy.

Dexter Manley was that happy today. His face said so. When he stepped from the weight room into the blinding sunlight at the posh headquarters of his new team, the Phoenix Cardinals, Dexter displayed a grin so wide you thought his face might burst. "When I left Washington {Thursday night} I didn't really feel it," Manley said Friday after his first official practice in more than a year. "You know when everything hit me? When I walked in that room and tried on a Phoenix Cardinals helmet. I thought: 'This is great. I can play football.' Nobody knows how grateful I am."

Joe Bugel knows. He watched Manley practice with the scout team, the JV if you will. Manley worked against Luis Sharpe, whom he considers the best pass blocking tackle in the league. Bugel said Manley "ran like a wild colt" and "buzzed around like a spring chicken. I think he could go in {a game} and give you 12 good snaps right now."

Someone asked if Manley was a "distraction" at his first practice. Bugel said no. "In fact, they kind of got a kick out of seeing him today," the coach said. "They opened their hearts to him. . . . Dexter is extremely excited about being here. He was bubbling with enthusiasm."

From the time he walked into the practice facility, Manley felt something bubbling, but it wasn't exactly enthusiasm. "First, I was optimistic about being reinstated," he said, "then about getting picked up. Then all of a sudden, it's here and I had this great sense of fear. Fear of the unknown, having to put on the pads again."

Manley didn't use those pads Friday, but he will soon. "He needs to be knocked down," Bugel said. "Louie, out of respect for Dexter, will give him a couple of shots. Dexter wants to be knocked around, to find out. He's saying: 'Don't stroke me. I want to know if I can play.' "

For the next two weeks, this will be his life. Traveling a couple of miles from a hotel, practicing, going to the weight room. He can't play until Dec. 9, in Atlanta against the Falcons. "It's like teasing me, putting me here and not letting me play," Manley said. "But I'm willing to comply with the commissioner's decision. . . . I took football for granted {before being suspended for a third violation of the league's substance abuse policy}, the integrity of the game, my responsibility. I wanted to get back desperately. Now I have the opportunity and I have to take it and run with it."

Manley has expressed sorrow about leaving Washington, and did so again in a long conversation Friday. But he knows a return to the Redskins would have been very difficult. His wife, Glinda The Saint, told him that, but it took awhile to agree with her. "I need this fresh start," he said. "Look at this, isn't it beautiful here?"

Being with the Cardinals will carry a new pressure, though. Bugel, who became close to Manley when both were new to Washington, went to owner Bill Bidwill and made the recommendation to pick up Manley. Bugel, unlike Joe Gibbs and the coaches in Washington, believes Manley can still play.

More important, perhaps, Bugel believes he might never have gotten a chance to become head coach if not for men like Riggo, Theismann and Manley. "I saw him when he was the best and I saw him sink into the doldrums," Bugel said. "I'm not about to turn my back on him now. I'm not going to use him for nine years and then turn my back. I, personally, like the guy. I respect him. I've seen what he had to do with his life. . . . He grew up in some tough streets in Houston; I know because I lived there for several years. I spent time with him." (Bugel was careful to point out that he isn't suggesting that the Redskins turned their backs on Manley.)

"I want to see if he can generate some enthusiasm," Bugel said. "I'd like for this to be long range, not just a four-week deal. He told me, 'I ain't gonna let you down, boss.' And I said: 'Hey, it's guys like you who helped get me here. I hope I made the right recommendation.' "

Manley says there is no way in the world he will let Bugel down: "Joe went to bat for me. You better appreciate the people who help you when you're down. Don't judge anything from today. Hopefully I can be a strong force and make a strong contribution. But this is what life's about, getting another chance. They wished me well and said they were glad to see me. I felt accepted, at home, and I hardly know any of these guys.

"It's kind of scary, being out here all alone. But I'll make it. I'll survive."