Ask those who know best, those who have gone through the same flirtations with drugs and destruction as defensive end Dexter Manley has, and they will tell you that Manley must now make a choice. They say this is the time for him to decide what he wants: Drugs or life.

Manley will step onto the football field today for the first time in more than 12 1/2 months. Instead of wearing No. 72, Manley will be in a Phoenix Cardinals uniform and sporting No. 92. He probably will play only 15 to 20 downs against the Atlanta Falcons instead of an entire game like he used to with the Redskins.

"If he shows up we'll play against him," said Falcons Coach Jerry Glanville. "He always had good quickness and good movement. What he is now, I don't know."

In all likelihood he will be in a frenzy, the adrenaline sending his usual sky-high emotions into meltdown. "I'm hungry and I want to kick butt and take names," said Manley.

That's the way Tony Collins remembers it: He wanted his first game back after being reinstated to be a success more than anything. Like Manley, Collins was reinstated by the NFL after testing positive three times for banned substances. The list of players who have made such a return is short: Manley; Collins; Hal Garner, now a linebacker with Buffalo, and former Los Angeles Rams tailback Charles White, who is an administrative assistant in the athletic department at Southern Cal.

Both Collins and Garner said that returning to football truly was a blessing, a chance at removing a stigma. But with his reinstatement, they said, Manley's struggle against drugs becomes even more difficult. The intensity of the fight grows because now people expect him to fail. Some, they said, will even tempt him.

"He has to be strong from now until he dies," said Collins. "I know Dexter probably feels the same when I say that I achieved what I wanted to achieve as far as getting my name off that blacklist. That was the biggest accomplishment as far as I'm concerned. Not playing again, but just making it back so my wife and my family don't have the word 'drugs' attached to their names. You fight and struggle so that word is never a part of you again."

Collins spent most of his career with the New England Patriots and upon returning to football after his suspension for cocaine abuse signed with the Miami Dolphins. He was cut -- "caught in a numbers game," he said -- when Jim Jensen and Troy Stradford ended their contract holdouts. Miami Coach Don Shula asked him to stay in Miami should someone get hurt, but after two months of waiting for the phone to ring, Collins moved back to Orlando, where he has just opened a football camp.

Garner is one of the lucky ones, able to find work after such a long absence from football. He is primarily a special teams player and backs up Darryl Talley at right outside linebacker. He was asked what Manley must do to stay straight.

"You've just got to find out what's more important in your life," Garner said. "Where your priorities are. It's easy to go the other way. But the best things in life are the hardest things {to attain}. And that's to work hard and think about the future.

"What's more important to you? To me, my health is more important to me. And my family and my future is more important to me."

Garner was a third-round draft choice out of Utah State in 1985. Shortly before the 1989 season he violated the substance abuse policy for the third time and was given an indefinite suspension. Garner will not talk about the specific nature of the abuse.

While away from football he was a construction worker and operated heavy machinery at a highway-contruction site in Nevada. He made $23.50 an hour, and found that his real-life work was much more dangerous than any pulling guard.

One rainy day on the job he accidentally stepped on an exposed power line that held 1,300 volts. "My knees collapsed and my own weight threw me back off the wire," he said. "I didn't know what happened to me. I thought I was having a heart attack. They rushed me to the hospital and everything was okay. But if I would have fallen forward, I'd have been dead instantly.

"I thought, 'Maybe someone wants me to be around for one reason or another.' "

Garner said that during the reinstatement process he stressed to the Buffalo coaching staff that he would take complete responsibility for his actions -- something Collins said was also key to his being able to come back.

"It doesn't matter how many people say you can't do this or you shouldn't do that," Garner said. "That's not going to help you. It all comes down to myself and nobody else."

Collins said he has been drug free since May 1989. After being reinstated, Collins was rejected by the Patriots, but Shula was willing to give him another chance, something the veteran coach has done with other players in the past.

Collins says he would love to sit down and talk with Manley to both encourage and warn him.

"The biggest thing he has to watch out for is not to relax," Collins said. "He is under the microscope and everyone in the world is watching him. People are waiting for him to mess up. He just has to do the same things that got him this far.

"For me, I had a crutch to fall back upon. For me, I had God. I know Dexter probably has a crutch as well. He better make sure his crutch is always there. If he gets lackadaisical . . . that's when you're at your weakest. That would be a huge mistake for him to relax right now, or ever."

Collins then paused and said: "I'll be watching Dexter. I know a lot of people will be watching him, but only a few will be really watching him. I'll be one of those few."