Some talented young athletes assume that they are so strong and so gifted that nothing can harm them. Unfortunately, this feeling of invulnerability sometimes leads them to rationalize the use of illicit drugs or alcohol.

Others who may not have been able to handle a particular drug still believe it won't impair their abilities. They fail to consider the harsh and sometimes irreparable consequences of drug and alcohol addiction.

Take Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets. Sportswriters called his second year "one of the best pitching seasons in history." He won 24 games for the Mets and lost only four. His earned-run average of 1.53 was extraordinary. Report Jim Naughton summed up the expectations. "Conservative baseball people believed that {Gooden} was going to be the best pitcher of all time, Naughton wrote. "Slightly less sober people believed that he already was."

Last year, his third as a pitcher, he won 17 games -- no mean achievement -- but he was shelled in the playoffs and was ineffective in the World series. He later tested positive for cocaine use and entered a drug rehabilitation clinic for 28 days.

Professional boxer Aaron Pryor was the world junior-welterweight champion, unbeaten in 36 bouts. Pound for pound, he was considered one of the most talented fighters of all time. But Pryor developed an addiction to "crack," an extremely pure derivative of cocaine. When he returned to the ring earlier this month, the loss of his skills was frighteningly apparent. He was pummeled by a mediocre opponent and knocked out in the seventh round.

Professional basketball player Micheal Ray Richardson was a star for the New Jersey Nets until he tested positive for cocaine use for the third time in his career. He was then banished from the NBA in 1986 for at least two years and possibly forever. In 1985 Richardson earned an annual salary of $750,000 with the Nets. By December of 1986, he was hoping to join the last-place team in a basketball league in Israel. He was told the team wanted no part of him.

There are other examples. Len Bias, signed by the Boston Celtics, never scrimmaged with Larry Bird or Robert Parrish. Jeep Jackson of the University of Texas at El Paso never knew which NBA team would pick him in the pro draft. Don Rogers never knew what it was like to start in a regular-season football game with the Browns before a sellout crowd in Cleveland stadium. They all tried drugs. They all died.

Time after time, those who are supposed to be guiding and counseling these young athletes pronounce themselves shocked and befuddled when drug abuse is discovered. But no one should be shocked anymore.

In virtually no other area of human endeavor do we place such inordinate pressures on those who are so young. In very few other circumstance do we bestow millions of dollars on those who may be too young and too inexperienced to handle it properly. How many young athletes have to die or ruin themselves before we no longer think of drug and alcohol problems as isolated and rare occurrences among athletes?

Too many first-year professional athletes have also failed to earn their college degree. That should be corrected. Regular classes on budgeting, financial management, and (repeatedly) on the perils of substance abuse might sound silly, but that doesn't mean that more can't be done to help young athletes make the right choices.

Former baseball great Hank Aaron has another idea. He would match rookies and college players with veteran or retired performers who displayed good character throughout their careers. That kind of one-on-one effort is badly needed.

We owe no sympathy to those athletes who squandered everything they worked for by repeatedly failing to quit drugs. Let them be cited as examples for the young.

Dwight Gooden provides another kind of example with his brave effort to handle the pressures he feels. He asked for a drug test, and when it came out positive, he entered a clinic. He apologized to his fans and has come back to pitch again, winning 11 games so far this season and losing only four.

He has been greeted with standing ovations in some ballparks and by heckles and jeers in others. No one knows whether Gooden will ever regain all his old magic, but he appears to be trying his best. For that he deserves real cheers. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.