THE QUESTION FIRST arose at the end of T the school year, and since the school year ended in June, and since soccer doesn't start until September, a simple "I don't know" did splendidly for an answer. The question, in this case, was whether my son, the 5-year-old, was going to start playing soccer. Soccer, for those of us living in the Washington metropolitan area, is not a game. It is a commitment. And it is not, as any soccer parent will tell you, a commitment to be lightly entered into.

One of the steps in the maturation of parents occurs when they realize their children are more or less like they were. Human, perhaps, but divine, probably not. It takes time, however, for parents to realize that their child may not be the second coming of Johan Cruyff, and most parents haven't gotten to that point by the time they field their first 5-year-old. Thus, they show up early Saturday mornings with thermoses in their hands and hopes in their hearts that they are launching a career that will lead, if not to easy street, at least to a college scholarship.

Hope springs eternal through the first couple of seasons, but by the time the little forward has been moved to substitute halfback, reality sets in. A natural soccer player he apparently is not, parents may discover. Not only does he lack speed, but he can't dribble. Nor can he pass. When the parents on the sidelines are yelling "DEE-fense, DEE-fense," he stands in the middle of the field, looking for a place to hide. Nevertheless, the soccer coach -- an amiable fellow with similar ambitions for his own little center forward -- will tell you that your little one is developing something known as "good soccer sense" and with hopes renewed, you persevere.

You get him to the practices on time. You bring the oranges for half time and the lemonade for the conclusion. As the years go by, you begin to volunteer for things, particularly if you are susceptible to guilt. Guilt made me volunteer one year to be in charge of the fields for a "select" soccer division. "Nothing to it," said the coach at the sign-up table. "I'll give you a list of people who have volunteered to lime the fields and set up the flags and nets and all you have to do is call them up and arrange who is going to do it when. They'll each have to do it maybe twice." That sounded like 10 phone calls and 45 minutes of work and anyone who doesn't have 45 minutes to give to the local soccer league is clearly not susceptible to guilt.

Well, as any veteran soccer mother will tell you, that's not the way it works at all. By the time I got around to telephoning, some people on the list had moved, others had had second thoughts, one person had broken his ankle, another person had ended up on my list by mistake and was sorry but he really couldn't see his way clear to tending the fields five or six times that season. I could see what he meant.

I managed to get a couple of more people added to my list, but it quickly became apparent that these fathers knew no more about how to lime a soccer field, or where to pick up the liming equipment, or where to place the flags or how to string up the goal net than guess who. Not only that, but no one ever told me I was supposed to arrange for someone to pick up the nets and flags at the end of each game and to either deliver them to the next limer or to store them for the week. So our team's equipment stayed on the field. The inevitable finally happened. Someone stole our flags.

"Well," said the league field maintenance coordinator, clearly horrified when he heard about our equipment being left after each game, "your team will just have to play without flags." Shortly after that, my field maintenance schedule fell completely apart when I lost my list, somewhere in the kitchen. It never showed up again. My field maintenance career ended in ignominy early one Sunday morning when my older son and I, braving blustery winds, had to take down our goal nets at the elementary school and deliver them to an Army captain who, I had no doubt, was going to be a much better field maintenance coordinator than I had ever been.

Last year, my older son decided he would no longer play soccer. I have gotten to the point of maturity as a parent where I happily exchanged his future soccer scholarship for my Sunday afternoons. Soccer, at least in the beltway league, seemed finally behind us. My younger son was happily occupied by playing airplanes, Star Wars and spooking his baby sister. While all of these interests, properly channeled, might lead to a career in international terrorism, they were guaranteed not to lead me into any athletic volunteerism. Silently, I cheered.

Then, this summer, he started to change. Suddenly, he swam. Suddenly, he started going into the backyard and kicking a soccer ball. He hit baseballs. He heaved footballs. He wanted to take up lacrosse. And this week he announced he wanted to play soccer.

There were several responses that came to mind. I thought about telling him he was too young. I thought about telling him it was too late to sign him up. I thought about telling him it was too dangerous. But I didn't tell him any of those things. I made the necessary phone calls and I made out the $22 late registration check and delivered it through two German shepherd guard dogs yesterday morning.

After all, the kid's got speed. You never know.