The second-best receiver in the NFL sat on a trunk in the Washington Redskins' locker room with a ski mask over his face, his eyes shrouded by sunglasses. On his head was a baseball cap. Gary Clark looked ready to hide from the world. Instead, for once, he was ready to talk.

"After Jerry Rice, who's the next best receiver?" Clark was asked. "Jerry Rice," said Clark, laughing.

"The statistics say you are," Clark was told.

For once, Gary Clark, who likes to play the role of the spurned little tough guy, was trapped.

"Yeah, I asked {the team} about those numbers the other day," said Clark, who's probably had them tattooed on his bedroom ceiling. "Over the last six years, I'm second behind Rice {in both yards and catches}. Maybe I'll catch him in the long run. Nobody will ever catch him in touchdowns. . . . But I don't really like being second to Jerry Rice. He's the best. He's done things nobody has done, except maybe Art Monk. But before it's over, I'd like to pass him."

Most people never think of Gary Clark in the same sentence with the sublime Rice. But you can bet Clark does. This year Clark didn't make the AP all-pro team -- first or second string. What a joke. After Rice, Clark should have been the automatic choice on the other side. Not just for this season, when he caught 75 passes for 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns, but for what he's done his whole career.

In his six seasons, Clark has caught 415 passes for 6,490 yards and 43 touchdowns. That's 69 catches, 1,082 yards and seven scores a year. What he did this year, he does every year.

The more you look at his numbers, the better Clark looks. Rice is on another planet, with 446 catches for 7,866 yards and 79 touchdowns. But the gap between Clark and the rest is just as clear. Only one receiver is within 750 yards of Clark: Henry Ellard with 6,147. Clark can almost spot any of the NFL's other receivers a full season of yards.

Clark also ranks third over the last six years in catches (Monk is No. 2 at 428) and touchdowns (Mark Clayton is No. 2 with 47). He seldom misses a game. He blocks like a maniac. He inspires his team with his courage and temper. Nobody catches tough passes over the middle better. And he's had four 1,000-yard seasons in the last five years. Nobody else has, except Rice.

But almost nobody knows Gary Clark. He hides out in The Posse, sharing credit with Monk and Ricky Sanders, even though their numbers, no matter how you slice them, don't really quite match his. Monk is pure Hall of Fame, but it's taken him 11 years to have four of 1,000 yards. Clark has never had less than 892 yards receiving in a year. Sanders and Clark are both 28, but Sanders has 150 fewer catches and half the touchdowns.

Clark is small (5 feet 9, 173 pounds) and far from the fastest. His hands are dainty and he doesn't break many tackles. But he has no known pain threshold, little respect for his body and no apparent intimidation factor. He took a hit so awful two weeks ago against Buffalo that it looked as if he'd broken his ankle, knee and neck. Clark won't even look at the replays of his contortionist escape. Yet he missed no playing time.

On the sideline, Clark is the one throwing his helmet, kicking debris and cursing at himself for the slightest mistake. In the locker room, Clark is the one brushing off interviews with a prickly remark. In other words, he's the spice and spark the Redskins often need.

Clark loves a dirty uniform or a downfield block, an end zone spike or a high-five orgy with fans. Yet yesterday may have been the first time he ever allowed himself to be compared with Rice, and he may have done it to prod himself and his team.

After praising the 49ers and Rice to the skies, Clark said: "But I think we have the best chance of anybody to beat 'em. Our work is really cut out for us. . . . We need to rise up two notches for the 49ers. We have to play our hearts out. . . . But it's a chance to avenge a loss to the best team in football."

These are the words of a man who claims that his only real all-pro attribute is "mental toughness . . . people telling me I can't and me proving I can."

Perhaps Clark is the only Redskin with enough motivational burrs under his saddle to remember that, at the beginning of the 1989 season, there was genuine debate about the Team of the '80s. "If we'd won the Super Bowl last year," he said, "it would have been us {with three Super Bowl titles and four appearances}. We had a chance but they got the job done. It's up to us to make sure we're the team of the '90s."

Clark is the only Redskin who talks like this, with Dexter Manley and John Riggins gone. That's why he's so valuable in their mellow locker room. "We're hungry. Nobody gives us much of a chance -- eight-, ten-point underdogs," said Clark, acidly.

On one hand, Clark is perfectly in touch with reality: "I can learn a lot from Jerry Rice. He doesn't have to learn anything from me." On the other, Clark has this wonderful sense of ridiculous ambition and arrogance. Without it, he couldn't have gone from Dublin, Va., and Pulaski County High and James Madison University and the USFL Jacksonville Bulls to 6,490 yards in his first six NFL seasons.

"Rice is on a pace to break a lot of records," he said. "He'll get there first. But I hope to break a lot of the same records. . . . next four, five years, maybe I can have some of the great seasons he's had."

To Gary Clark, 1,265 yards or 1,229 yards or 1,112 yards, or 1,066 yards in a 12-game strike-shortened season, are not great years. They are just the building blocks.

Clark had been talking for 15 minutes -- a record for him. Ski mask, sunglasses and hat were still on -- indoors. Gary?

"Either I'm still cold," he said, shivering from the team workout by the snow, "or I could be really ugly."