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Dexter Manley, who fell at least as far as any star this town has ever seen, will make a rare area appearance this weekend. He’s been booked at the World of Wheels Show in Chantilly, along with Darrell Green and Charles Mann. Of the three former Redskins teammates, one’s basically too good to be true, and the other’s too good-looking to be taken seriously. So look for the guy with the prison record, the self-described former illiterate who was kicked off the team and ultimately out of football for relentless drug abuse, to be the real crowd pleaser.

That would be Manley.

Manley, who turned 41 on Tuesday, lives in Houston now. That’s his real hometown. Long before he was famous or infamous around these parts, he starred at Yates High School there. He moved back in 1996 after being paroled early from a Huntsville, Texas, prison. He’d served about 15 months of a four-year sentence for crack possession. For returning here for a few hours of gripping and grinning, he’ll take home a nice wage.

He needs the work. He’d really like to land a steady job, something in football or oil or media or politics or public relations or social work, but hasn’t had any luck lately.

“Unemployment, well, that’s my full-time job right now,” Manley tells me. He says the same thing about staying sober.

Manley stays away from Washington mainly out of concern for his tenuous sobriety. So he may not know that the fans around here never gave up on him, despite his tough times. That for all his foibles, and after all these years, he remains as beloved as anybody ever to have worn the burgundy and gold. Perhaps he’ll realize it this weekend. Everybody still adores Dexter.

Why? Maybe it’s because he always played so hard. We remember him kicking the dirt or mud or grass or turf beneath his cleats every time he got into his 3-point stance at defensive end, getting set to take off at the snap of the ball. Or maybe it’s because he played so well in big games, back when the franchise had big games. Manley predicted he’d knock out Danny White before the 1983 NFC championship, and then went out and did it, literally KO’ing the Cowboys QB with a violent full-body smash that ranks as one of the most memorable hits in team history. Or perhaps it’s just because, for a guy so big and so strong and so mean in uniform, Manley never carried himself like a superhero off the field. As a civilian, he just came off as nice and needy. Terribly, tragically needy.

Manley came to the Redskins in 1981, Joe Gibbs’ first year. He was part of an amazing draft class, one that also included future stars Mark May, Russ Grimm, Darryl Grant, and Clint Didier. Manley played with three Super Bowl teams and went on to log 97-and-a-half sacks in his nine seasons here, still the most ever by a Redskin and a total that put him in the NFL’s all-time Top 10 in that category when he left the game. We learned last weekend that crack didn’t keep Lawrence Taylor out of the Hall of Fame. We’ll never know if crack kept Manley out; he says it did.

At least consciously, Manley didn’t decide when his career would end. That decision was made for him. The Skins gave up on him in 1989, with plenty of cause. He had logged four official violations of the NFL’s drug policy, plus more than his share of unofficial violations. That same year, he testified before Congress that he was unable to read even though Oklahoma State University had used up all of his football eligibility. Manley tried to hook on with Arizona and Tampa Bay following his banishment from Washington, but he couldn’t come up with enough clean urine to stay with anybody for long. The NFL hit him with a lifetime ban in 1991. He went to a Canadian Football League club in 1993, but his problems crossed the border with him.

The forced early retirement did nothing good for Manley. Once he hung up the No. 72 jersey, Manley really started doing a number on himself. In one particularly devastating period, between November ’94 and July ’95, Manley was arrested four times on drug charges. All this despite more than a dozen stays in rehabilitation clinics. The most harrowing of the drug-related incidents came when Manley holed up in a Houston motel room and started calling old friends, including some in the D.C. media, and telling them he was about to kill himself. Everybody believed him.

Incarceration straightened him out, Manley says. That’s pretty much all he’ll say about his jail stay, although the correctional authorities say he was a good prisoner, that he performed all his custodial and food-service chores well. Manley says he’s stayed absolutely clean since his release, but adds, again and again and again, that it’s a constant struggle to stay clean, another full-time job. He is wary of strangers, but obviously far more scared of himself, of whatever lurks inside him—”this insidious thing,” is how he refers to his disease—that compels him to play games with things he can’t handle.

Football, he can handle. Drugs? They handle him.

If he had his druthers, Manley would be back in the game. Not playing, of course; he wants to coach now. He knows that his best chance at landing a job as a scout or some other entry-level coaching position lies with the Redskins. Manley says he wrote a letter to the Redskins’ deposed president, John Kent Cooke, and asked to be hired on to the team’s scouting staff before last season. He wasn’t saying anybody here owed him another break, but he figured his request would be taken seriously, given how poorly the personnel department had performed in the past several seasons. (Compare any draft in the last decade to the class of 1981.) Cooke never wrote him back.

“I want to be a part of the Washington Redskins, to be a part of bringing them back to where they were,” he says. “I know more about football than I know about anything. I could re-invent myself, if there’s anybody who still holds a grudge against me. I know I could make a difference.”

He might write another letter to Redskin Park when and if the sale of the team to the Milstein/Snyder group is approved by the NFL. He has heard that Art Monk, another teammate from the glory days, is already talking with the prospective new owners about a job. That gives him hope.

He didn’t watch much pro football this season. He prefers reading about the games, now that he has the skills. He gets the New York Times delivered to his house, and with whatever time is left over after looking for work and sobriety maintenance, he follows what’s going on with the Redskins. He keeps up with the rest of the league that way, too. He recently read, for instance, that Jimmy Johnson briefly considered giving up coaching. Manley doesn’t often talk to Johnson anymore, but he knows the fiery Dolphins coach quite well, having played under him at Oklahoma State. The retirement saga left Manley concerned about Johnson’s well being.

“I’m so glad Jimmy changed his mind,” Manley says. “He’d be lost without football.”—Dave McKenna

Manley will appear Friday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Capital Expo Center in Chantilly, Va., as part of the 42nd annual Washington World of Wheels show. Tickets $4 to $9.50. For more information, call (703) 802-0066.