TEMPE, ARIZ. -- Very early in his rookie year, perhaps after an exhibition game, Dexter Manley remembers his senses being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the Nation's Capital. One night he was leaving RFK Stadium, wild, young, an absolute unknown in Washington, when he spotted Joe Theismann stopped at a traffic light. People engulfed Theismann, told him they adored him.

Manley, nine years later, recalls it as if it were yesterday.

"People were buzzing around him and I was just amazed," he said. "I turned to my girlfriend and said, 'I want to be like that one day. I want to be like Joe Theismann.' . . . He was sharp, he was a businessman, he was a Republican."

Most of all, Manley wanted acceptance, adulation. And because he could beat his man and grab a quarterback better than most anyone in the NFL, he became a Washington hero. From 1981 to 1989, Manley loved Washington and for the most part Washington loved him back. Few defensive players in the club's history have been as popular for as long.

He sacked quarterbacks, he helped win two Super Bowls. He waved his towel, he stirred emotions. He aggravated teammates, coaches and opponents. He gave generously to any charitable cause involving children and he learned to overcome a learning disability. He had his own radio show, his own television show. He had a mohawk haircut, he had a deputy sheriff's badge. He was infuriating, he was endearing, sometimes at the same time. He obliged us, he disturbed us. He made us laugh (always) and he was never, ever boring.

On a team that considers an out-of-place hair a "distraction," Dexter Manley was as wild as Friday night. And in a town where so many make it a point to walk between the lines, Dexter Manley crossed the street wherever he wanted. He was hated by a few, loved by most, ignored by nobody. The minute the Washington Redskins waived Manley, a compelling marriage ended.

"I made all kinds of friends. All kinds of people supported me -- blacks, whites, Asians, Jewish people, all kinds," he said Friday, eyes misting. "When I was growing up hard, I never thought that life could be so good. Never thought I'd be a part of something so big as the Redskins or a city so powerful and international like Washington, D.C."

He had to stop talking.

Chances are, you saw one of the television interviews on Thanksgiving eve when Manley cried after being reinstated by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue one year after receiving a "lifetime ban" for substance abuse. A happy, grateful Manley turned to mush when asked how he felt about leaving Washington to resume his NFL career.

"Part of me will always be a Washington Redskin," he said Friday, just after his first practice as a Phoenix Cardinal. "You heard what I said about having my ashes spread over RFK Stadium when I die? I meant it. I told my wife that. I feel a great sense of loyalty. I lived and died the Redskins; you knew that, didn't you? I loved the city and the organization. I told Glinda, sprinkle my ashes over RFK. People think I'm a lunatic for saying stuff like that but that's the way I feel about it.

"Washington always supported me, for some reason, even when I was down. There are some real special people back there. . . . You know who called me just before I left? Torgy {defensive line coach LaVern Torgeson}. He called me and it meant a lot, just that my position coach wished me well, because sometimes you just don't know how people feel unless . . . "

You could see it coming on. Tears trickled again.

Manley is the first to say how surprised he is that he's been forgiven by so many, so quickly. That includes Coach Joe Bugel, the man who convinced the Cardinals Manley deserved a second chance.

"The one thing about Washington," Bugel said, "is that when you become a hero, you stay a hero. You can fall asleep under a table at a banquet, but you don't get excommunicated in that place. People love Dexter. There are people who just come to see Dexter play. John Riggins thought all 54,000 came to see him {Riggins}. Dexter's the same way. . . . You've got to like the guy, you really do. He never made me mad."

When Joe Gibbs and others in the Redskins organization saw red, Bugel saw someone who was excitable like himself. Bugel, remember, is one of Jerry Glanville's best friends, which is enough said.

"Dexter paces, he sweats profusely, he's like a caged lion before games," Bugel said. "That's my kind of guy. If a pass rusher sits around and mopes, that worries me. I wasn't his position coach, of course, but I always thought, 'Hey, this guy can help us win.' He stirred everybody. He wasn't afraid to call you out in team meetings. On Sunday he would get RFK all crazy waving that towel. You know what, though? There were times when we really needed a sack and we'd say to him, 'Dexter, we really need one now.' And boom ! Sack, just like that.

"I know some things he did would get next to some people," Bugel said, laughing. "I believe that Joe Gibbs, deep down inside, liked Dexter. But Dexter would repeat things {publicly} Joe would say in meetings and Joe would just . . . {Bugel, teeth gritted, started pulling his hair}. I remember putting my arm around him one time, saying, 'Dexter, you just can't call Buddy Ryan a little fat guy. Not the week we're playing him, anyway.' "

Manley was just being himself, sweet as cherry pie but wild as Friday night.

"Dan Riley {the Redskins' strength coach} would always say to me, 'Dexter, calm down,' " Manley said. "But that wasn't me. I'd be in the locker room before a game ripping the phone out the wall, breaking coffee pots, throwing chairs. Pete Cronan was like that too. I was a product of the Jimmy Johnson philosophy {at Oklahoma State}. Find a way to get to a guy, and get him ready. One time before an Arkansas game, I ran right through the wall in the locker room.

"People ask me, 'Isn't that foolish?' Dave Butz would sit there all reserved and calm. Brad Dusek told me to sit there and drink coffee, but the caffeine pumped me up too much and I'd hyperventilate. Everybody had his own way, and mine was to be fired up."

All that emotion would spill out, into the team meetings, onto the sports pages, onto the 11 o'clock news. The Redskins love to control and hate distractions. Manley couldn't be controlled and he certainly was a distraction. Not everybody is as serious about football as coaches, and just when the casual fan had heard enough of counter-trey and 50-gut and two-deep zones, there was Dexter Manley coming into the living room wearing a mohawk. Distraction or breath of fresh air?

"Several times the Redskins tried to work with me, but my head was so hard," he said. "I was just a wild young buck trying to do it my way." When it became obvious his way included doing drugs, many in the organization were understandably fed up.

"I missed a practice one day, before the playoff game against the Rams," he said. "Coach Gibbs -- and I'll never forget this -- came up to me and said, 'Dexter, you're going to wind up in the gutter.' "

He had gone a long way, from being like Joe Theismann to being in the gutter.

So how bitter is Dexter Manley about being turned away by the Redskins, about having to start life anew?

"Not bitter at all," he said. "When you do drugs, you throw away trust. Drugs make you a liar and a cheat. I read where the Redskins say they couldn't trust me. Well . . . How could they? I missed a practice, I did drugs. The thing I'm learning to do now is trust Dexter Manley again. I threw a monkey wrench into Glinda's life. I lost more than a million dollars, I figure {in salary and outside income in his year suspended from football}. I'm glad I didn't lose my wife and my kids. I've still got my family."

Once again, he has football too.