His mind was so crammed with expanding, contradicting thoughts that he needed to go to a very big place to sort them out. So Chris Ward, a senior who should be starting at right defensive back tomorrow for Maryland, went and sat in the last row of the bleachers in Byrd Stadium at 10 o'clock at night last week.

He was the only person there. He thought mostly of what the doctor had told him about his recurring back problems: "if you were my son, I would forbid you to play."

After undergoing a laminectomy (disc removal) last March, Ward again began experiencing shooting pains down his right leg. Dr. Art Hustead, the surgeon who also operated on the Bullets' Phil Chenier, has technically given Ward approval to play, but has personally advised him against it because of the great possibility of further injury.

He gave him the news last Thursday. Since then, Ward has not practiced and has undergone one epidural nerve-block treatment that has not helped him. When the treatments are finished next week, Ward will have decided on one of three things: to quit football, to red-shirt a year (after which he would have trouble getting his strength and his position back) or try and come back and play this year and graduate on time, which has been a goal ever since he began counting the number of five-year players who never get degrees.

Ward does not have to play football. He made the honor roll last spring, even though he had to drop one course and take lecture notes standing up.

There are other options awaiting Ward after graduation, but football isn't one of them. This is his last chance.

"It's just something any athlete can't put into words," said Ward, who started the final seven games last year. "You're a competitor, and you just keep fighting back against whatever's going against you. No matter how much you complain, you always go back on that field. I can't turn my back on the team and walk away from it.

"My mother doesn't know or understand anything about football. She just worries about my health, and she can't believe I'm out there at all. When I came back for summer workouts, I didn't call either one of them - they're divorced - for two weeks. When I finally called my dad and told him what the doctor said, he just said he was relieved to hear I was still walking. He's caught between his feeling for me and the feeling he knows I have for the game.

"I've been depressed all week. You feel alienated from your team and your coaches. It's hard to feel a part of it at all. And it is killing me inside to stand and watch.

"I've spent more time thinking this week than I ever have in my life. I try to study, but I end up laying down in my bed and thinking and thinking of my options. It torments me. I have no answers.

"If I could only just know exactly what risk is involved - but nobody really knows. The doctor doesn't know, and I sure don't know, what's putting pressure on that nerve (causing pain in his right leg). The risk is that as long as something is irritated, it's possible that something else might give in, like another disc.

"It's the toughest decision in my life. I want so bad to be out there. But I also want to be healthy the rest of my life. If you could pick one time in your life when you talk to God face to face, I would like to rap with him for 10 minutes right now. I've been praying more than anyone could imagine. I verbally talk to Him.

"I've been waking up every few hours at night. I go to bed thinking about it, and I wake up at six in the morning thinking about it, so I get up and take a shower. I've always been religious and I believe God will sway my decision. But right now I don't feel any insight from Him at all."

Ward is virtually alone in his decision. He has listened to the advice of his doctors and parents, who would rather not see him play. The Maryland coaching staff needs only the doctor's approval, which apparently will be granted.

So he sits alone, in the last row of the stadium, in the dark. Completely in the dark.

"I imagined myself there on the field in the first game, with people in the stands, and I really wanted to play," said Ward. "Last year, it was nice to go 8-4 and win the Hall of Fame Bowl. But we didn't win the (Atlantic Coast Conference) championship, and maybe we didn't go to as big a bowl as we would have liked.

"I talked to some of the seniors last year and I know they felt something was missing. I feel we have a chance to have a great team this year, to win the championship. Later in life, I would remember that. I would tell people that when I was a senior, we won the ACC title.

"The coaches asked me why I don't come to practice. They said it means a lot to the team to see me standing there. Well, I can stand there and cheer. But I don't want to be a guy on the sidelines. I want to be a part of it."

Ward has already endured so much physical and mental pain that it would almost feel foolish to him to quit now. The injury was sustained two summers ago in a workout, and he thought it was some sort of minor muscle pull.

He played with pain in his back and leg all year. After the season, the first doctor he finally visited put him on three daily doses of Butazolidin, which Ward says he will never take again after reading of its controversial nature. He was also taking endocin. "One drug after another," he said, until he went to see Dr. Stanford Lavine, who conducted a simple leg lift test that made him shriek in pain.

Other tests gave him migraine headaches. He endured postsurgery leg spasms. "They jumped all around," Ward said, "and I couldn't control it."

He attended classes standing up, and then regretted that he didn't drop out of school for a semester to rest his back. The doctors think he may have aggravated his back in just performing the college routine.

"What I needed," said Ward, "was bed rest."

After a semester of summer school, Ward took a "couple hundred dollars" he had saved up, bought a bicycle and paid rent to stay in one of the school dorms so he could undergo treatment and rehabilitation in the training room, and jog and ride his bike. It took 10 hours every day.

On July 1, he jogged for the first time since February.

In August, when the team reported for workouts, Ward tried to keep up. "I had lost my quickness," he said. And the gifted sophomore, Steve Trimble, was burning a path to Ward's position.

So Ward pushed and, after running too many sprints, he couldn't run any more.

But the hardest part of it all had been contemplating this decision.

"People have been encouraging me," said Ward. "But everyone says, 'I wouldn't want to make the decision you have to make."