DALLAS NO NEED to see Dexter Manley in the flesh to know how happy and lucky the happy-go-lucky defensive end feels these days.
His voice -- still booming and colorful over a speakerphone at Valley Ranch -- was proof enough.
Most evident was the personality that became Manley's signature in nine seasons with the Washington Redskins, the one critics said led NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to reinstate Manley as a drawing card after three violations of the league's substance-abuse policy.
"My biggest fear?" Manley said yesterday. "Maybe we'll have an earthquake in Phoenix."
Manley, who returns to Texas Stadium on Sunday as a Phoenix Cardinal, now walks on the fault line of sobriety from cocaine abuse. Suspended three times by the NFL for failing to pass drug tests, Manley was suspended indefinitely in November 1989 after his third strike. Tagliabue reinstated him Nov. 19, and the Cardinals claimed him on waivers two days later.
He returned to the field last Sunday against Atlanta, making no tackles in 19 plays. His comeback is seen as something of an experiment, held under a league-wide microscope. The stakes are much higher than whether he can return to the pass-rush form that made him the Redskins' career leader in sacks.
"I'm not worried about the hype," he said. "Just winning games and, hey, staying sober. That's what's important. I do know this: Whatever I left last year when I was with that other team [Washington], I'll pick back up. But that's not the focus."
Staying sober is. Manley, who says he has been clean for 407 days, has a structured, monitored rehabilitation. He meets often with Cardinals team counselor Gary Mack and attends three or four Alcoholics Anonymous or Cocaine Addiction meetings per week.
While at the John Lucas Drug Rehabilitation Center in Houston last year, Manley saw a friend have a seizure. That, he says, is what keeps him sober. The NFL has other ways, including an after-care program in which Manley is tested periodically.
"Life is a temptation," he said. "You have to take it and run with it, play the game. The most important thing is I know I have freedom today, and that freedom gives me choices. There was a time when I didn't have choices. I wasn't free. Drugs make you a slave.
"There is a structured program now. Like in 1988, when I was suspended, it was like, 'Hey, you're back.' But now commissioner Paul Tagliabue is doing what's necessary for the integrity of the game. That's to make sure this doesn't happen again. But you can't guarantee that. Now, what I need to do is follow the rules and the guidelines and live within myself.
"I want to stay sober for me, not the Cardinals and not for the National Football League."
And not even for former Redskins teammate Joe Theismann, now an ESPN commentator. Theismann's recent comments to Phoenix reporters included his fear Manley was back in the NFL, the "environment that contributed to his problems."
"Joe Theismann is a layman," Manley said. "He doesn't know anything about drug abuse. If Thomas Henderson said it, then I would be scared. For a guy like Joe Theismann to say that, it's like water running off my back.
"I'm bulletproof today. Bulletproof means that what people say won't necessarily harm me."
But Manley is quick to admit he has no " 'Superman' on my chest." Translation: Don't expect too much too soon. At 31, he says he's in the best shape of his life, especially after a strict training regimen last summer and fall in Houston.
And while Manley says he would like to play five more seasons, he isn't counting on anything.
"It's just like playing tennis," he said. "You don't just go back on the court after you've been away for a year. It's going to take you time -- ask John McEnroe. Hopefully, this week I'll improve, particularly against my boy Jimmy Johnson."
Manley's spirits yesterday were such that he even asked about another acquaintance from his two years under Johnson at Oklahoma State (1979-80).
"Is Bruce Mays still there?" Manley said of Johnson's administrative assistant. "Does he wear a toupee? I thought so. I hadn't lost it all.
"Drugs didn't destroy my mind that much."