It didn't feel like this in 1986, and '87, and even '89, when he lived his first NFL lifetime. Bobby Joe Edmonds walked around like he owned the world in those days. And that was the way it was supposed to be, wasn't it? He was young, and strong, and a football millionaire. It didn't matter if he was drinking. It didn't matter if he knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that he was an alcoholic. When you lead the league in punt returns -- which Edmonds did in 1986 and 1987 -- life is one big party and it seems like no amount of beer can take that away.

It is different this time. Bobby Joe Edmonds is going to be 31 years old next week. Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to give him a chance this summer, he had not played a professional football game since 1989, when he broke his leg while playing for the Raiders in Los Angeles.

He didn't have any focus then -- didn't know what he wanted from life. All he knew was that he wanted another beer.

"The first year and a half, I kind of took it easy and contemplated what I wanted to do with my life," Edmonds said. "I'd gone through a lot, there were family tragedies, and I really needed to take a look at my life."

Edmonds took his first drink when he was 13, growing up in St. Louis an only child. He didn't do it out of curiosity, or peer pressure. He did it because it seemed like the best way to dull the pain. His mother, who had raised him. alone, was killed in a car accident that year. He was sent to live with his grandmother, a nurse.

Another car accident claimed his grandmother when he was 20 and playing for the University of Arkansas. By that time, Edmonds had been dependent on the bottle for seven years -- he didn't start slowly -- and it certainly did not seem like a good time to stop.

"I guess," he said, "I used it to escape the reality that was my life."

He is proud, still, that the drinking never kept him from success on Saturdays or Sundays. He had a schedule to his dependence. Lighten up a bit on the weekend, only a few beers the night before the game. He never got hangovers, rarely even a headache. It never made him throw up.

"There was never a time when it was the heaviest," he said. "I pretty much always would drink a lot. But I still was responsible and wanting to do a good job on the football field."

He was a drinker when he starred in three sports in high school, a drinker at Arkansas, a drinker when he went to the Pro Bowl after his rookie season with the Seattle Seahawks in 1986. And he was a drinker when he broke his leg, and went home to sit for what he thought would be a few months and ended up being more than five years.

There were attempts at comebacks. He tried to play for the Canadian Football League and fizzled. He had tryouts with other NFL teams that never seemed to work out. He had to make a personal push to get a workout with the Bucs this past year.

Still, he is adamant that the drinking did not keep him out of football, and did not hamper his game when he played. Maybe he's right. His coaches at Seattle don't think it hurt him, don't think he ever looked a step slow or a bit tired on the field after what might have been a very long night.

But he does know that he wouldn't be the Bucs' punt returner today if he hadn't kicked the habit on New Year's Day, 1993. And, more importantly, he never would have found focus in his life.

It was the biggest drinking night of the year when Edmonds took a look at his life -- he was selling real estate and had missed three NFL seasons -- and realized it was time to make changes. He quit. Cold turkey. It was the best decision he has made in his life.

"It deadened what I was feeling," he said. "It took away the pain. But it got to the point where it was making things worse for me mentally. It got to the point where I didn't have the tolerance anymore."

Edmonds does not like to be called a reformed alcoholic. He does not like the word "alcoholic" at all. "A label," he calls it. He prefers "clean and sober." At 31, it feels good to be "clean and sober" after 18 years of drinking. And at 31, it feels better than ever to be in an NFL locker room.

"I take it more as a privilege to play in the NFL now," he said. "You come out of college expecting it -- expecting everything. I took it for granted."

Despite the tryout, despite his arrival in training camp in excellent shape, it seemed like a long shot that Edmonds would make the Bucs roster this season. A five-year layoff from the sport is unheard of. But today he will be the Bucs' kick and punt returner when they play the Washington Redskins.

He won't be the flashy runner he was back in 1986, when he thought he could do anything and still be a football star. But when he walks into the locker room, he will look around, the way he always does now, and thank God for the fact that he made it back there at all.

"When you're 21 years old, you just kind of go with the flow. You're a young man in the NFL, and you're going through a lot of things -- things are just happening around you so fast," he said. "31 vs. 21 -- it's a big difference. Hopefully, the older you get the more mature you get. I know it happened for me."