As New Year's miracles go, this one is very much incomplete. Jerry Bush's transformation from drug dealer to community asset is a work in progress.

Still, I walk away from a visit with this 22-year-old, 270-pound teddy bear of a guy with the feeling that he just might make it. And if he does, then dozens--no, thousands--of young people we are too quick to dismiss as lawbreakers and thugs have a shot at making it.

It's easy enough to get excited about people who, like Saul on the road to Damascus, turn their lives completely around. But Saul was an expert in both his lives. Jerry Bush never was that good as a drug dealer.

"I guess I came in when there was a lot of violence but no real money for most of the people out there. I'd been on the streets since I was 16 and moved away from my mother. Selling drugs was just something to do to get by, to try to take care of myself, but I wasn't making any money, and I kept getting caught. I kept thinking, I can't keep doing this, but I couldn't see anything else."

He's seeing a good deal more these days, and he's increasingly certain that what is involved is a good deal bigger than luck.

He might have dismissed as a lucky break the fact that "Mr. Curtis and 'em happened to be there the first day I got back from boot camp--I'd caught a charge [possession of narcotics with intent to sell and possession of an unregistered 9mm handgun]."

The reference is to Curtis Watkins, founder and director of the East Capitol Center for Change, an outreach program for at-risk youth, in Washington.

"He came up to me and shook my hand," Bush recalls, "and tried to talk to me. But I wasn't giving up much. Matter of fact, I wasn't sure he wasn't the police. I finally gave him my phone number and pretty much forgot about it.

"A couple of weeks later, though, he called me and asked me to meet him the next morning at the rec center. Well, I went, and he explained the program--told me the deal was if we clean ourselves up and make some positive changes in our lives, they would try to help us catch some breaks."

Bush was only half-listening, half-trusting. But he soon came to trust Watkins and, shortly after that, to believe in himself and his own possibilities. He and five other guys from the community came up with the idea of forming local youngsters into football teams.

When a local TV station covered the launching of the East Capitol Eagles, Bush found himself on the air talking about his history of drug dealing and other law violations.

He immediately regretted the indiscretion, and was furious with himself when his probation officer called him the next day, told him he'd seen the TV program and said he wanted to talk to him.

Though Bush feared the worst, that turned out to be the next piece of unexplained "luck." The probation officer thought he saw something in Bush's eyes that convinced him the young man was on the level, that he really was ready to change. "He told me he'd already planned to send me back on a [probation] violation, but if I was serious he would take me off probation after three more months and if I stayed straight and gave him clean urines, they'd tear my file up."

If he's grateful for the chance to clean up his record, Bush is ecstatic about his work with his football kids. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," he said. "I'm having a good time working with these little guys, and I feel like I'm making a change in some of their lives as well as my own. They open up and talk to me about their problems--maybe because they know I grew up like them. I help them with their schoolwork, help them work out their problems and everything.

"I'm proud of myself. I really am. I've never done anything that made me feel like this before. I'll be starting at Capital Commitment (a telecommunications training program for skills ranging from computers to laying telephone cable), so I'll be able to make a decent living. But I'm still going to keep working with the kids. I really believe that's what I'll be doing years from now when I have kids of my own. This is changing my life."

He offered an offbeat example of the change.

"I'd flunked the written part of my driver's permit test five different times. Then one day I was going down to see my probation officer, and just decided to pop in to Motor Vehicles and take it again. I missed just one question. It was like I was really scared to try before."

He says the year 2000 will be a different story for him. It's too soon to know, but I'm hoping he's right. Because if Big Jerry can do it, what youngster can't?