George Nock, a professional football player turned artist, helped kick off the D.C. Department of Recreation's Black History Month celebration last week with the unveiling of his portrait of Benjamin Banneker during a festive program of music and prose readings.

Nock, a former star running back for the Washington Redskins and New York Jets, was praised for his achievements in sports and art during the program, attended by about 150 persons at the Benjamin Banneker Recreation Center, 2600 Georgia Ave. NW.

F. Alexis H. Roberson, acting director of the recreation department, praised Nock as "a gifted painter" and "an example of a person who is using his life and his talent to enrich and enhance the community as well as the country." She challenged members of the audience to be "stewards of history as well as makers of history."

Nock, who has been drawing and sculpting since his youth in Philadelphia, said he had never seriously considered art as a career until a 1972 football injury forced him to consider alternative careers.

"All I ever heard about artists was that they were poor. So I never really thought about it as a vocation. Then I got injured, and while laying up in the hospital I reexamined my life," said Nock, 36. "I remembered my mother telling me as a kid that in order to get through life I had to think like a woman."

He said his mother cautioned him "that if I thought like a man, I would be brash. She said women thought about things before, during and after they happen."

Once he decided his football career was over, Nock said, he entered an art contest. Though he missed first place by the "flip of a coin," he has been selling his works ever since.

Nock's subject, Banneker, was a member of the surveying team under Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant. He was called upon to redraw from memory plans for the capital city's streets and locations for early government buildings after L'Enfant was fired by George Washington.

"I tried to capture the soul of the man," Nock said. "I learned that he was the grandson of an African king and a white woman who bought herself out of indentured servitude."

Banneker redrew and completed the intricate designs and persuaded prospective investors to buy land in the future capital on the basis of the plans alone. This feat was crucial to financing construction projects in the city. History has it that had he not succeeded, plans to move the seat of government from Philadelphia would have been abandoned.

"The story of Benjamin Banneker involves each of us," Roberson said at the black history observance. "It is the story of our ancestors who make it possible for us to enjoy the freedom we know today."

The two-hour program included a review of black music, from the Negro spiritual to contemporary funk, called "Black Reflections". It was performed by the Ambassador's Combo, a local band.

Carolyn Mills, a recreation department information manager who narrated the history accompanying the music, said the "pain, suffering and death of involuntary servitude" were the sad realities of black life that set the tempo for creation of the spirituals and the blues."

"Within black music is embedded the rhythms of West Africa, the blues and jazz of early times, the spiritual meaning and gospel feeling," Mills said. "Most of all, the inner souls of all who have left these treasures behind."

Larry Brown, director of the department's information office and coordinator of the program, called black history an achievement under adverse circumstances.

"We must endeavor as black people to look within ourselves and summon the strength to continue," Brown said. "We have no time to be petty or pretentious because there is much work to be done and a great distance to go."