It seems almost improper for the Washington Redskins to invest so much time and money in a 22-year-old like Heath Shuler. When guys like Monte Coleman and Raleigh McKenzie were slugging it out in the trenches in the 1980s, Heath Shuler was a teenager in Bryson City, N.C., ordering cheeseburgers with cole slaw topping at Na-bers Drive In.

But what if? What if Shuler is Mozart in cleats, a prodigy who makes old men weep because they know they've never, in their lives, created something so uplifting? What if Shuler is Little Stevie Wonder, 12 years old and blowing "Fingertips" to a disbelieving audience? What if Shuler is that one in a million?

What if? What is that worth?

A legion of people in Bryson City believe it. Norv Turner and Charley Casserly believe it. Joseph Heath Shuler believes it. The task is convincing his 52 soon-to-be teammates to believe it.

"I never felt I was always better," says the elder son of Joe Benny and Margie Shuler, and Benjie Shuler's older brother. Benjie Shuler will be a sophomore receiver this season at Tennessee, and it's not with a small sense of pride that Benjie Shuler remembers that the final pass that his big brother completed as a Volunteer was to him.

"I just felt that I gave it more effort and put more into it than other players did," Shuler says. "I never thought I was better than them. I never wanted to put myself better than them. I wanted to be the best, but I always felt that somewhere, someone was a little better than I was, so I wanted to be better than him. So that's why I just kept working, regardless."

He has no regrets about going to his local school board with his family to get permission to repeat the sixth grade (giving himself another year of physical maturity). No regrets about staying away from sodas since he was a 12-year-old ("When he comes to dinner on Sunday," first cousin Stephanie Hyatt says, "I have to buy decaf tea"). It's all part of his plan.

He won three straight state championships at Swain County High School. In a little more than two seasons as the starter at the University of Tennessee, he threw for 4,089 yards and 36 touchdowns. He finished his career with touchdown passes in 17 consecutive games. He was sixth in the country in passing last season, throwing a school-record 25 touchdowns. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.

"He's such a competitor," says Vinny Cerrato, the San Francisco 49ers' director of college scouting, "a winner-take-charge kind of guy. He's got a lot of talent and he's going to get better and better. He's a lot like {Seattle quarterback Rick} Mirer was last year. He's a very strong, tough kid."

But this is different. There are defensive players in the National Football League -- linemen, red-dogging linebackers, blitzing safeties -- who would just love that one kill shot, that chance to knock Shuler upside his $19 million head. There are genius coordinators who love disguising what their defenses really are, who can change from man to zone to combination in a flash.

"It takes you almost the whole season to learn the offense, and how to read defenses," says Atlanta's Jeff George, the first pick (by Indianapolis) in the 1988 draft. "But I'm glad they threw me in there as a rookie. I learned a lot of things at an early age that a lot of people can't say they did."

Shuler's heard all the pros and cons. He talked to dozens of people before deciding what to do. In the end he chose to listen to the muse and follow the plan he's had since he was 10.

"I couldn't see the big deal about him at first," Margie Shuler recalls. "People would say how good he was and I'd think well, Heath's always been pretty good. Now I look back on it and I see that he worked hard at it." Leader From the Start

He comes from a beautiful, troubled part of the country. Swain County, N.C., is tucked into the Smoky Mountains in the far west part of the state, and its scenic location makes it a tourist haven. But 80 percent of the county's land is either part of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park or the Cherokee Indian Reservation. There is no developing industry. There hasn't been for a while.

Preliminary state unemployment figures for June, the latest month that's available, show that Swain County has the fifth-highest unemployment rate -- 8.7 percent -- of North Carolina's 100 counties.

"These are mountain people, and somewhat clannish," says Tom Harris, the pastor of Victory Baptist Church, where the Shulers have been coming since Leona Shuler, Joe Benny's mother, used to drag him to Sunday school 40 years ago.

"I came here 22 years ago," Harris said, "and someone said if you can last five years, they'll accept you. They're a different type of people, but a great people. You have to get to know them and have a different temperament."

It's good to grow up in a small place. Everybody knows your name and what you're doing. But it's bad to grow up in a small place. Everybody knows your name and what you're doing. It's an America where mothers make cookies and everyone sleeps over and you have to walk over the bodies on a Saturday morning, but at least you know where your kids are.

Shuler's been leading others since folks can recall. They remember when he was in youth league football, and how the other 12-year-olds just listened to him. He played guard in the eighth grade and safety in high school -- well enough that he was the state defensive player of the year his senior season -- but he's always wanted to be the quarterback.

"I felt I could get more out of the players than the coaches could," Shuler says. "At times I felt that if I did something, if I was the tough guy on the team -- take a shot, go ahead. I was that type of person in high school. I felt I could throw the ball."

Coach Boyce Dietz likes to tell the story of one time, when Swain County was ahead and just had to run out the clock. But one of its players took a swing at an opponent and got a 15-yard penalty.

"And I was jumping on the kid for doing something so foolish," Dietz said, "and Heath all at once said 'Coach, let's worry about that later. We need to get us a first down.' "

Shuler won the first of his three state titles in the 10th grade. By his senior season he had whittled his list of schools to Tennessee, North Carolina and Alabama, and one day he asked a startled Dietz if he wouldn't mind calling Notre Dame and Ohio State to tell them no thanks. A week before the early signing period began, Shuler visited Alabama. The Crimson Tide had made videos with Kenny Stabler and Joe Namath asking Shuler to come aboard.

Boyce thought for sure he'd go there. But Tennessee was 90 minutes away, over or around the mountains, by car. Chapel Hill was five hours away, and Alabama wasn't much closer. He went for a walk by himself along The Road to Nowhere, the now-famous stretch of suspended highway that leads out of town, and decided he'd be a Volunteer.

He didn't start as a freshman. Andy Kelly got to play Wally Pipp for a year, and Kelly was a pretty good quarterback. (He's in the Pittsburgh Steelers' camp.) The chants to put Shuler in began midway through his freshman season, but he threw just four passes in three appearances.

The numbers grew when he became a starter. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes just twice in his 22 games as a sophomore and junior. The breakout game came against South Carolina, when he was 20-of-28 for 296 yards; most of his performances were flatline consistent from week to week. The ratio of pass to run at Tennessee was 51 to 49.

The Volunteers went 9-2-1 his junior season, and he was besieged -- go or stay? He talked to Drew Bledsoe and Mirer, and to a hundred other people. He turned to Roger Jenkins -- the former dean of the university's business school who had grown up in Spruce Pine, 30 minutes from Bryson City, and who was also Shuler's academic advisor -- for help in sifting through potential agents.

He went hunting, and when he came back from his trip he asked his parents and Benjie to write down on a piece of paper what they thought he was going to do. If the answers were wrong, he'd tear them up. They all wrote their goodbyes.

"I think Benjie was the first one that came to me," Shuler said. "He looked me straight in the eye and said 'Don't you worry about me. I'm going to do all I can here and someday I'll be up there again too. Maybe we'll be together again.' "

He fell into the waiting arms of the Redskins, who just happened to have their highest draft pick in 30 years and just happened to have replaced the defensive wizardry of Richie Petitbon with the offensive savvy of Turner. There was no better time to take a quarterback, and Washington's brass knew it for sure after Shuler worked out for NFL types in a carefully orchestrated practice in Knoxville last St. Patrick's Day.

They want to start him against Seattle in the regular season opener Sept. 4 -- if he's ready. But they're more interested in getting him ready to play for 10 years.

"Two guys who won a bunch of Super Bowls -- Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman -- had miserable starts," Turner said. "They got physically beat up, didn't win games early in their careers, and came back and were obviously very successful. You've got to play it the way you feel it, and when a guy's ready to go, get him in there."

Shuler's aware that fans -- and some teammates -- may harbor some ill will toward him because of what he's making and who he is. But this happened early in his college career at Tennessee. A lineman didn't much care for what Shuler was calling. So Shuler popped him upside his helmet. He doesn't anticipate doing that here. But he will if he has to.

"Once they know me as a person and know how I feel about winning the game, and the toughness, that's when the leadership role takes place," he said. "And when they start knowing that I know the offense as well as anybody, that's when they'll have confidence in me. I have confidence in them now, and I'll let them know that -- 'Go ahead, I'll stand here. You block him all you want to. Cause I'll stand here.' "

Season .. Completions .. Attempts .. Yards ... Percentage ... TDs ..Int.

1991..... 2 ............ 4 ......... 23 ...... 50.0 ........ 1 ... 0

1992.... 130 .......... 224 ....... 1,712 ... 58.0 ......... 10 .. 4

1993..... 184 .......... 285 ....... 2,354 ... 64.6 ......... 25 .. 8

Totals... 316 .......... 513 ....... 4,089 ... 61.6 ......... 36 ...12

NOTE: Left school after junior year


GAME: Passing touchdowns (5) vs. Florida, 1993

SEASON: Most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (11), 1992

------- Fewest interceptions thrown (4-tied for first), 1992

------- Most passing touchdowns (25), 1993

CAREER: Most passing touchdowns (36-tied for first)