Darrell Green probably would disagree, but of all our local athletes, the Redskins cornerback is the one for whom we should be most thankful. The tiny speed demon with the cherubic smile is the prototype of what a famous athlete can be, if he chooses to create a life that is about more than just himself.

Last Sunday against the Giants, at age 39, the 5-foot-8 Green, who looks like he'd fit in Tre Johnson's shoe, intercepted one pass and deflected another that led to a Redskins interception. Such deeds are just a day's work when you're one of the greatest athletes in any sport in Washington history and an almost certain NFL Hall of Famer. Even in his 17th season, Green still sends a buzz through the stands the instant the crowd realizes No. 28 is at the center of the action.

However, as "the sun is setting"--his view--on his playing days, it's become clear that Green's great distinction is not his speed, though he was the NFL's fastest man for eons. It's not his seven Pro Bowl selections, three Super Bowl starts or the fact that he is the oldest man to start at cornerback in the NFL. "Am I the oldest?" he says. "I was the oldest last year."

Rather, Green is the rarest breed in sports: the star who drives himself, day after day, to give almost as much back to others as he gets in praise from them.

Green remembers the day he awoke from his happy athlete fantasy to discover a harder, deeper, more satisfying life of adult responsibility.

Early in his career, Green made charity appearances around the D.C. area. "I was the drawing card," he said. Darrell, be a kid magnet. Say a few words. No heavy lifting. "One night, I was in Clifton Terrace," said Green. It was the same familiar scene of poverty and disregard. But this time, he really saw it. "There were children whose diapers hadn't been changed since yesterday," he said, "and parents who were under the influence.

"I got home and I started to cry. I thought, 'Darrell, you're a nice guy, but you're not doing anything.' I knew it was God speaking to me. I had to respond to the nudging in my heart. No genius thinking was needed." What was needed may be as rare as genius--tedious, honest, persistent commitment.

You never know where you'll find Green. Sometimes, he's working with the Big Brothers of America or in a drug-prevention campaign. He holds an annual golf event to benefit orphans and foster children. He may be hosting Christmas with the Redskins for at-risk children or sponsoring 200 kids for a day at Adventure World. Today, his Youth Life Foundation will help the Good Samaritan Foundation distribute Thanksgiving dinners. In 1996, Green was the NFL's Man of the Year. You may have noticed that award doesn't get quite as much media attention as MVP.

Most of all, Green is there--hands on, first-name basis--for many of the people he helps. When he thinks of the 38 children (ages 5 to 12) who spend at least 10 hours a week in his Learning Center in Northeast D.C., they have personal histories. Just the thought of a public scandal, so familiar with modern athletes, makes Green shudder.

"No matter what I did, let's face it, I'd end up fine," he says, explaining how easy it is for rich athletes to change geography, change mates, buy themselves a clean slate. "If I go out and blow it, it's not about me. What would it do to Kenny and Alberta [at the Learning Center]?"

Many pro athletes establish charitable foundations. Sad to say, in some cases they have become yet another forum for self-aggrandizement. Their goals are often as vast as they are vague. Green has kept his focus tight so he can keep his purpose pure. For example, not one jock has an affiliation with the Youth Life Foundation. Not even a Redskin?

"Guys are in and out [of Washington]," says Green. Then, he adds the truth. "You see athletes [arrested for] DUIs, busted for drugs, guy shoots his girlfriend. I have to protect this work. This is my life. This is what I'll do after football. I'm committed. . . . If I reach 100 people, then it will be a quality 100."

Actually, Green's hopes are broader than that. The Learning Center captures his vision. Eventually, he wants to establish one in each of the city's four quadrants.

The Learning Center has computers and other up-to-date tools. But most of all, it has attention and structure. It fills the time gap in the day between teachers and working parents, supporting both. About 90 percent of the Learning Center kids end up enrolled in private or parochial schools; according to Green, those schools like the idea that they can reach either a parent or the Center to consult.

What this city has in Green is a fellow who's not an occasional philanthropist, or a celebrity-for-the-day or a photo-op man of God. In this age of hype-ocracy, Green has a proper, but unusual, reaction to praise. It embarrasses him. He introduces you to Deborah Knight, who works with the children every day and Eric White, the foundation director. "Eric is the only male African American I've ever had on my staff. That's bad news," says Green.

"Without these people, I'm just a nice football player," he adds. "They put hands and feet on my vision."

Before you feel too warm and fuzzy toward Green, remember one thing: his driving, all-consuming goal in life is to get his hands on $10 million. See, just a typical greedy athlete. Well, maybe a little different. The millions would be an endowment for his foundation, "ensuring stability and permanence" to an operation that already requires a $530,000 annual budget.

The day Green retires, and he admits that day is coming sooner than later, he knows that his fame, and his ability to raise that money, will plummet. Green still loves football. However, if that $10 million showed up on his doorstep right now, would Green retire? "Try me and see," he says, grinning.

Barring a miracle, it won't. So Green plans to play until the endowment is raised. How long will it take?

"I got enough in me," Green says, "to reach the finish line."