In the world of professional football, Chicago Bears Chairman Mike McCaskey is used to conflict. After all, he once fired Mike Ditka and later was removed as the Bears' president by his own family. In the off-season, he has tried to apply his experience to the world of diplomacy.

McCaskey, who taught English at a junior high school in Ethiopia during the mid-1960s, is one of a small group of former Peace Corps volunteers who are trying to promote a peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought a bloody border war in 1998-1999.

The group traveled to the two East African nations last summer, to float peace ideas--and distribute Chicago Bears T-shirts and caps--to political leaders. Concerned that each country has 250,000 troops poised along the disputed border, the former volunteers recently have been drawing up maps and proposing "peace zones" where Peace Corps volunteers could play a role. And they have lobbied expatriates from the region to try to persuade Ethiopia to accept outside mediation before the dry season brings new fighting.

"We're genuine friends to both sides," said McCaskey, who also serves on the advisory board of the Ethiopian Community Association in Chicago. "We're looking for mechanisms or ways to negotiate that will result in a wise and durable peace agreement."

Both Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi were taught by Peace Corps volunteers, as were both countries' U.S. ambassadors. One of McCaskey's former students is the No. 2 official at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington.

Other members of the group include former deputy interior secretary John Garamendi; U.S. Court of Appeals Judge William C. Canby Jr.; Melvin Foote, executive director of the Constituency for Africa; and Charles Dambach, president of the Museum Trustees Association. Except for Dambach, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, all of the group's members served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, which included Eritrea before Eritrea won independence in 1993.

Like past attempts at citizen diplomacy in other areas--by former president Jimmy Carter in North Korea or Jesse L. Jackson in the former Yugoslavia--the efforts of the former Peace Corps workers in Ethiopia could help combatants out of a negotiating box. But they also are making U.S. policymakers nervous about free-lance diplomacy.

A senior Clinton administration official involved in trying to mediate between Ethiopia and Eritrea calls the former Peace Corps volunteers "committed, well-intentioned souls." But, the official added: "It is easy to be on the outside, and things may seem a little simpler than they really are."

The official argued that the Clinton administration has been trying to resolve the conflict. Former national security adviser Anthony Lake has traveled there as Clinton's special envoy. Susan Rice, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Gayle Smith, director for African affairs on the National Security Council, have encouraged peace efforts. One congressional source who also has been involved said that Clinton has placed calls to the leaders of the two countries.

The former Peace Corps volunteers "are a little naive," said Salih Booker, an Africa expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who called the idea of peace zones particularly "unrealistic in the face of two governments sending thousands of their young men out to kill each other."

But the former volunteers are impatient with U.S. efforts and believe that the Clinton administration has left too much responsibility with the 52-member Organization of African Unity's mediation efforts. Some former State Department officials and U.S. diplomats who have served in Africa also express unhappiness that the Clinton administration has not exerted economic pressure on the two countries to settle their dispute over a sparsely populated territory with virtually no economic significance.

Dambach said Clinton should intercede in the same way that the president is doing with Israel and Syria. He rated the chances of success as high; because Ethiopia is land-locked and Eritrea has fewer than 4 million people, he said, they need each other. When Garamendi first raised the issue with Clinton months ago, Clinton said he would look into it. But a former administration member said the president was too distracted by the war in Kosovo.

"We understand that there are 20 wars he could intercede on," said Dambach. "But here's one where if he had the leaders to Camp David, there's reason to believe they would come and the war would be solved."

Naive? "That may be true," said McCaskey. "I wouldn't ever think we would be the ones to negotiate a treaty. All we can do is try to encourage both sides to go forward with the negotiation process rather than fight it out on the battlefield."

Only two years ago, when Clinton visited Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea were hailed as role models for the continent: neighbors that had put aside their differences and made peace after three decades of war.

But in May 1998, Eritrea invaded a border area and tens of thousands of people died in the fighting that followed. There were three major fronts, one on a route to historical sites that are the hometowns of many Ethiopian leaders and another close to the Eritrean capital. In February 1999, Ethiopia sent human waves of soldiers toward Eritrean trenches, and more than 10,000 troops died in less than a week of fighting.

Ethiopia recaptured most of the disputed area, and fighting diminished. Eritrea has agreed to "redeploy," or withdraw, from the area and accepted a plan proposed by the Organization of African Unity to settle the conflict. But Ethiopia, still unsatisfied, has rejected parts of the OAU plan, which would have an international commission settle the boundary and attach blame for the war.

"Once one side is humiliated, it is not about borders or political ideology," said a congressional expert on the region. "This is about dignity, honor."

"Each side wanted the other to have a bloody nose. We said, okay, both sides have bloody noses. It's better to make peace now than later, when tens of thousands more are dead, because the outcome is going to be the same," Dambach said.

In recent weeks, Ethiopia and Eritrea have reinforced their troops with tanks, aircraft and antiaircraft weapons. According to Garamendi, Ethiopia has acquired more than 150 new tanks, and both sides are seeking regional allies. "All it takes is one captain who hears something go bump in the night and off we go," said Garamendi. "With two armies standing face to face, it's a very risky situation."

The former Peace Corps volunteers have deep ties to Ethiopia dating to another era, both in the United States and the horn of Africa. In 1966, Garamendi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and was talking to the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland Raiders, who wanted to draft him to play football. But his fiancee said she was joining the Peace Corps, so they went together. They taught sixth- and seventh-graders in Mettu Illueabor, a small town in southwestern Ethiopia. During his second year there, Garamendi advised the regional development office on setting up schools, health clinics, roads and water systems.

In 1984, he returned to work in relief camps for famine victims.

McCaskey went to Africa after graduating from Yale University in 1965. He taught science, English and music to junior high school students in Fiche, north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. "I wouldn't trade those two years for any other two years of my life," McCaskey said.

"They share a common culture and tradition," McCaskey added. "Here are two of the poorest countries in the world. They have to cooperate if they're to get anywhere."

CAPTION: Eritrean soldiers capture an Ethiopian in June 1998 in fighting for the village of Zala Ambessa. Tens of thousands have died in the two countries' clash over a border area.

CAPTION: Former Peace Corps teacher Mike McCaskey presented a Chicago Bears shirt to Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi last year.