The story nine years after the fact is that Fred Stokes was on his high school football field in Vidalia, Ga., when his playing career began. That's typically where a lot of careers are born, and a few of them even end up in the NFL.

But the story of Fred Stokes is different. He hadn't played football since the seventh grade, until the high school coach noticed a 6-foot-3, 190-pound tuba player marching with the band and suggested the youngster try football.

Stokes said friends frequently had suggested the same thing over the years but he'd never really considered it because he loved basketball, enjoyed the band and never felt compelled to do something else. This time, as a senior, he tried it, and put himself on an improbable path to the defensive line of the Washington Redskins.

He played so well that Georgia Southern offered him a scholarship, and four years later, the Los Angeles Rams used a 12th-round draft choice on him. He was an interesting pick because when he left college he still had some of the build and speed of a basketball player.

He began his collegiate career as a tight end, then played some offensive tackle before moving to defense. Pro scouts thought he could be either a linebacker or defensive end.

College football fields dozens like him, and when NFL scouts see them, they almost always ask one another: "What if he added 40 pounds?"

Stokes fought long odds to make the Rams that summer of 1987. He spent five games on injured reserve, then was used as a pass-rushing specialist the final 11 games. He played the first five games of the 1988 season, then an ankle injury sidelined him the last 11 games.

The Rams apparently didn't believe they had a franchise player, but they still saw him as a big, fast, likable guy who might develop into a consistent contributor. "Potential" was still a word that came up a lot, and when they left him unprotected in the NFL's Plan B free agency system, they probably thought it a decent gamble.

Who would take that gamble? Stokes was shocked to find that several teams would and that in the first spring of Plan B, he was one of the most sought-after commodities. The Redskins lured him with a package of money, including a $100,000 signing bonus, and "intangibles," Stokes said.

The Redskins have spent more than $2 million in the two years of Plan B, putting out good money and bad money looking for a gold nugget who slipped through the crevices. Cornerback Martin Mayhew -- pried away from Buffalo -- has become one of those players, but Stokes may turn out to be the best of all.

Although this year he missed virtually all of training camp with a shoulder problem and has played only on passing downs, Stokes has again shown a knack for making big plays. He has also shown that, at 26, he may just be beginning to realize his potential.

During the 27-17 loss to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, Stokes was one of the bright spots for the Redskins, getting 2 1/2 sacks and recovering a fumble. Despite limited playing time, he leads the team with 5 1/2 sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles.

He hasn't been on the field a lot, but when he has been out there he has been around the ball and able to make things happen.

"I don't think I've done anything that special," he said. "At the same time, I haven't hurt the team."

This season has been a roller coaster ride beginning in Carlisle when his shoulder popped out of place the third day of practice. His training camp had all but ended at that point, which was especially disappointing since he'd ended last season as the starting right end -- Dexter Manley's old position -- and hoped to begin the new season there.

The shoulder injury ended that. While Markus Koch was playing well and winning the job, Stokes spent hours in the weight room working to make the shoulder stronger. He apparently did that, but it wasn't until he was fitted with a huge plastic harness -- a contraption that resembles a half-body cast -- that the shoulder stayed in place.

He got back into the starting lineup only when Koch got hurt, and has spent much of the rest of the season as one of a corps of seven defensive linemen rotated depending on the situation. Only Charles Mann plays both running and passing downs.

"I want to be out there all the time," Stokes said. "Who doesn't? But right now the coaches feel this is what's best and it has been working. I'm not the type to feel sorry for myself, so you just do what's asked and stay ready if you're asked to do more."

The son of a Pentecostal minister and aspiring to be one himself someday, Stokes is friendly, open and instantly likable. He said his wife, Regina, often tells him he ought to have more of a temper or be more emphatic.

"But that's just not me," he said.

Likewise, he said the shoulder injury never worried him. It appeared at times he might have to learn to endure the pain of it popping out of place two or three times a game and Stokes said he could have done that.

"I wanted to get back in there," he said, "but I didn't get worried. I was working hard and I just have a lot of faith that the Lord will take care of me. If work and prayer isn't enough, then what is?

"Really, I've been pretty lucky. I only had three days of training camp, and when I came back my footwork and reads were off. I was going through my training camp four or five weeks into the season. You start out feeling you've got to be careful, but once you get on the field, you never think about it."

Eight teams offered him contracts in the Plan B sweepstakes and he narrowed his choices to Cleveland, Seattle and Washington before picking the Redskins.

"I liked it here," he said. "It wasn't any one thing you could put your finger on. People were nice everywhere I went but I felt at home here."

He weighed 252 when the Redskins signed him, and now after two summers of weight work, he is up to around 270. His development has been important because pass rushers are perhaps the most valued commodity, other than quarterbacks, in pro football.

"He got a slow start because of the shoulder, but he has played very well," defensive line coach Torgy Torgeson said. "We wanted to bring him along gradually because of the shoulder, and the more he has played, the better he's done."