"GO TEAM!" Then came a loud clap of hands as they broke their huddle. 'Baby bulls preparing for a charge could not have appeared more aggressive.

Helmeted, shoulders and thighs bulging with protective padding, they bent down in unison, kicking dirt and sod into the air as they dug into position. Muscles were taut, nostrils flared. Vicariously you could sense the adrenalin racing through their bodies.

The quarterback called the signals. The ball was hiked, and orderliness quickly degenerated into a massive heap of flailing arms, legs and torsos.

In a few short seconds the whistle blew, and from the sidelines a covey of coaches began yelling encouragement and criticisms to their now huffing -- some slow in getting off the ground -- puffing charges.

Football mania. It's been billed and advertised as the ultimate in American masculinity. The women swoon, the players gloat, and many an adolescent lad considers it to be his Rite of Passage into manhood.

As I observed -- as a passerby -- a team practicing the other night, I was tempted to offer the boys some advice. What I had to say, however, would never have penetrated such a formidatble scene.

Like many teen-age boys, I, too, was lured by the glory of high-school football. I endured all the rigors of training and practice to capitalize on the ritual of steak and eggs with "The Boys" on Saturday morning before the game, the manly smell of sweat and Right Guard in the locker room, the accolades poured upon the team at victory parties, and, of course, the ogles from the always bouncing, bubbly cheerleaders.

But if the truth be known, I was never much of a football player, and never really had the desire to be. I was more caught up in the glamor and glitter of it all than I was in the sport.

First off, I was lucky if I weighed in at 120 pounds in full uniform and soaking wet. My teammates, on the other hand -- especially the first-string line-men -- nearly all tipped the scales at 160 to 220 pounds. That fact, alone, turned practice sessions into pure, unadulterated nightmares. I was pounced on and pummeled, everything but turned loose.

As we inevitably met at the line of scrimmage and the leather popped (actually it was my bones cracking), the coach would scream, "That's the way to hit, fellas!" The coach thought he was Vince Lombardi, the linemen all imagined themselves to be Sam Huff, and I was left a victim of my own foolish sense of glory and their collective egos.

As a result of such sportsmanship, I was hospitalized two consecutive years with injuries to my left knee. (Now that I look back on it, I didn't need protection from them, but from my own warped concept of manhood.)

What is even more ironic is that even the smidgeon of glory I was entitled to eluded me. In my senior year, while my classmates were dancing at the victory parties, I was in hospital having cartilage removed from my knee.

So, if anything, my football career ended, "Not with a bang, but with a whimper."

But, thank heavens, time has a way of sometimes bringing us to our senses.

I'm 32 years old now, and in reasonably good shape. And just as my taste in music has changed over the years, so has my preference in participatory sports. Skiing, tennis and jogging are more to my liking these days.

Yet I find myself continually reflecting upon my school football days. No, not because I never became a star, but because now I've got to take things a bit easier than I'd like.

For instance, last month while I was chasing after a Frisbee, I slipped on wet grass, my knee "came out," and down I went. The cost? One night of sleepless agony, a $100 doctor visit, two days on crutches and a month's worth of hobbling around.

More commonly, when I'm moving left, stretching for that backhand shot, every now and then my leg buckles; I've got to be extra cautious when I'm perched on skis; and I can forget about jogging when the weather is damp.

Sound like sour grapes? It's not intended that way. Just an older, more mature individual reflecting upon foolish youth.

Perhaps had I gone into football for more of the right reasons or at least demonstrated more ability, I wouldn't feel so bad about having to contend with this chronic physical disability.

What I wish someone had told me then is that the better part of manhood is not how hard you can hit the guy wearing the other colored jersey, but rather how to make decisions based upon sound and honest (with yourself) reasoning.

So fellas, the advice I withheld from you the other night but offer now is:

If you're in the sport because you truly love playing the game and derive a genuine sense of pleasure and satisfaction from it, play your guts out.

If, on the other hand, you're in it for the fanfare and bravado, do yourself a favor and take up another sport like tennis or golf. Or else you might find that the price of a little fleeting glory is more than you'll want to tackle later in life.