Last year Sid Gardner told friends about his dream: "I want to be the first professional athlete from Bowie State College."

Now Gardner's dream has come true. He recently signed a two-year contract as a free agent with the Toronto Argonauts, a team ranking in the middle range of the Canadian Football League -- thus becoming the first professional athlete from the small Prince George's County college.

Gardner, a 25-year-old senior defensive end, had a banner year for the Bowie Bulldogs: a slot on the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) All-America team; Player of the Week for the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA); and an honorable mention for the CIAA-Sportswriters Association All-Conference team.

Although the 6-3, 233-pound Gardner was double-teamed most the season, he averaged more than 15 tackles per game and was credited with 24 quarterback sacks, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.

But the road to his senior year at Bowie and on to Toronto -- where he estimates he will earn around $30,000 annually -- has been a hard one for Gardner, a psychology major who is due to graduate in June.

After becoming a football star at Worster Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, Gardner was recruited by Syracuse University. Gardner applied, but Syracuse did not follow through to admit him.

An uncle then mentioned Gardner to coaches at Bowie, who went to Gardner's home in Jamaica, N.Y., and convinced the youth to attend the Maryland college.

Gardner enrolled in 1974 and had an outstanding freshman season. His performance during his sophomore year was even better, and the Bulldogs ended the 1975 season with a 9-1 record.

But Gardner's troubles began after his sophomore year.

"I misplaced my priorities," he now says flatly. "I pledged a fraternity and got involved in a lot of unimportant things. My grades began to suffer. The head coach left, and I suddenly felt betrayed. My woman cut out on me and my health turned bad. Everything seemed to go wrong all at once."

Gardner decided to drop out of Bowie and revaluate his life: "I decided to go home to get my head straight. But that didn't work either because all I found myself doing was lying around wasting time and energy."

Gardner took a friend's suggestion and joined the Navy in 1976.

"When I first joined . . . I enjoyed it because it was a challenge," said Gardner. "I got a chance to travel as well as take care of my health problems, particularly my teeth.

"But after a while, I became turned off by the lack of education and other opportunities. I never did see all those things that my friend had told me about."

Gardner spent 1 1/2 years in the Navy and, despite some trying times, said he learned some very valuable lessons.

"Now that I think about it, the Navy experience really gave me an opportunity to do some real serious soul searching," said Gardner. "I learned to understand the importance of those things that I had taken for granted. It helped me mature into a real man and implement a plan."

Gardner became closer to God while in the Navy and said this, more than anything else, put him on the right track.

But Gardner's mother soon became ill, and the Navy gave Gardner a hardship discharge so that he could go home and care for her.

Like a prodigal son, he returned to Bowie. He enrolled there in 1978, and went on to do well in the classroom and on the football field -- making a 3.0 grade average and receiving an All-CIAA honorable mention.

Kathy Fitzgerald, his girlfriend, was a great inspiration to him at this time, according to Gardner: "She stayed by me during all the hard times."

His prowess on the football field prompted the Toronto Argonauts and six U.S. professional teams -- the Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers -- to show an interest in him.

Bowie head coach John Organ said that he is not surprised that Gardner attracted the interest of the pros.

"He really worked hard . . . He spends hours upon hours working on weights, running and training all year round," Organ said.

Organ sees Gardner's signing with a professional team as a boost for the struggling, 9-year-old football program at Bowie.

"First, it gives the returning players something to work toward," said Organ, who is also athletic director. "The players are all proud of Sid and are even talking about being drafted or (becoming) free agents at the end of their collegiate career.

"Secondly, it's already begun to help us in recruiting. Since we don't give out scholoarships, it's hard to convince players to come to Bowie. But since Sid has signed, prospective players are already showing more interest than ever before. It has given us some much needed credibility."