MANKATO, Minn. (AP) _ John Randle was an unknown 240-pound bundle of muscle and nerves when he reported to the Minnesota Vikings five years ago.

His college coaches had told him he was too small to play defensive tackle in the NFL, and then every team passed him up in the 1990 draft.

Even when he got a chance as a rookie free agent with the Minnesota Vikings, the defensive linemen tried to kick him out of their first meeting. Go meet with the rest of the linebackers, they told him.

With a knack for turning unproven players into productive pros, the Vikings made a rare find in Randle. He has become one of the most feared defenders in the league, and on Wednesday he became one of the richest.

The Vikings rewarded their two-time All-Pro with a two-year contract extension worth $6.3 million, a deal his agent said makes him the highest-paid tackle in the game.

``When I think about it, it kind of makes me laugh a little bit,'' Randle said, recalling his first days as a Viking. ``To come in as a free agent, it was scary. You think you don't have a shot at it, and once you do achieve it you say to yourself, `Some things in life you can achieve.' ''

The contract includes a $2.25 million signing bonus. Randle will earn $1.25 million this year in the final year of his previous contract. His two-year average of $3.15 million for 1996-97 is believed to be just over the $3 million the Seattle Seahawks pay tackle Cortez Kennedy.

``That's what we were striving for, and I think we accomplished that,'' said Gary Uberstine, Randle's agent.

The Vikings negotiated an extension with the 6-foot-1, 272-pound dynamo since last season. The star of one of the best defenses in the league the past two seasons, his value to the team will be even greater this season with tackle Henry Thomas gone to Detroit as a free agent.

But Randle, a relentless player who works as hard in minicamps as he does in games, considered holding out when training camp began this week to force the team to finish his deal.

He relented when the Vikings had to handle Warren Moon's domestic troubles and Broderick Thomas' arrest last week while trying to finish negotiations with several key rookies.

First-round draft pick Derrick Alexander and veteran running back Robert Smith remain unsigned.

``I'm just glad we finally got it done,'' Randle said. ``I hope things will go back to normal.''

Randle's sack totals have gone up each of his five seasons in the league. He had 13 1/2 last season, the most among interior linemen in the NFL. He also tied for the NFC lead in that category and for second in the entire league.

Over the past two seasons, only Pittsburgh's Kevin Greene and Kansas City's Neil Smith have more sacks than Randle, who has 26. Greene and Smith, both outside pass rushers, each have 26 1/2.

Asked what drives her husband, Rosie Randle said it is his burning desire to leave behind his impoverished boyhood in rural Texas.

``Maybe growing up poor,'' Mrs. Randle said, ``and not wanting to be poor again. Not wanting that for his family.''

Randle played at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, before transferring to Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville) for his final two seasons.

A highly emotional player, Randle often seemed to have tears welling in his eyes as he talked about his new contract. He spoke haltingly as he remembered the days when the only person who believed in John Randle was John Randle.

``Most of my coaches thought I was too small or too short,'' he said. ``I'd like to say to them _ just look at me now.''