Football never has been hard for Steve Atkins.

But the other things - the pressures, the injuries, the hangers-on, the growing up - they have affected Maryland's marvelously gifted tailback.

Now he is a senior, and with 390 yards rushing in three games, he is on his way, finally, to his dream season: a healthy, happy, leave-me-be, 1,000-yard season.

Injury after injury shortened Atkins' previous three season, just after he had been good enough to stir fans to believing he ranked among the best backs in the county.

There is magic in Atkins' step, something breathtaking in the way his beautifully constructed. 218-pound frame bulldozes over others.

The field is his domain, the only place he has ever been completely happy. "Nobody could understand the way I feel when I carry the ball," Atkins has said. "It just seems like I was made for it."

And so it has been frustrating that Atkins has never put together an entire season of magic. His injuries have been questioned, and not just by fans, but also by people he thought were friends.

"There is a man at home who always used to give me jobs, who I thought was my good friend," said Atkins. "I went home and saw him after I hurt my knee, and he said, "I have no time to talk to you."

"That's the kind of thing that has really upset me. That kind of thing, from you own hometown."

Atkins is from humble surroundings in Fredericksburg, Va., where virtually everybody knows him and his gold Torino. When it came to choosing between Maryland and Tennessee for college, Atkins chose Maryland, primarily because it was near home.

Things like loyalty, support and love are everything to Atkins. He described himself in one interview as "weak inside." When he first came to school, he worried so much about his family that frequently he went home and was distracted somewhat from football.

He was deeply hurt when his concern did not seem to be returned, when the town started criticizing him, when his parents never came to watch him play.

Maturity has helped Atkins, more than anything else. Life finally has begun to make sense to Atkins.

Because of this, he is hoping for his dream season.

"Nobody in my family ever went to college. My brother dropped out of school in the 10th grade," said Atkins."They really didn't know how to go about many things, and I kind of took care of things."

"For four years, I've been working on a new house for my mother, and they finally moved in last June. That took a load off my shoulders, after four years of work."

"My mother doesn't know much about football, but she knows how much this year means to me. This year she said she would take care of everything. She's never been to one of my games, and now I kind of hope she never does, because if she saw the way I get knocked around she might be shocked. I understand how she feels about my football. It used to bother me that she and my father have never seen me, but I've matured a little. I can handle things better now. I know she's proud of me."

Atkins says he does not plan a trip home until Thanksgiving, "and then I'll only see my family and a handful of true friends," said Atkins. "And then I'll come on back. I'd rather stay here. I get so much hassle at home. It seems like someone always has something bad to say, never anything to encourage you, or give you confidence."

Atkins always has been a quiet person, but this year he has turned almost silent. Occasionally, after games, his speech seems to be laced with anger. After the opener against Tulane, when he rushed for 110 yards, one of his comments was, "I'm sick of the whole bit."

Atkins does not mean to be unpleasant. He is just tired of the questions.

"I've been talking too much already. I've been talking and nothing has been getting done," Atkins explained yesterday.

"I'm playing just the same as I always have. It's just that my attitude is different. I'm more confident. I'm determined to play in every game. I run hard, work hard. I've been pushing myself more in practice, and the coaches have been pleased about it."

"Staying healthy is the most important thing. I would like to get 100 yards in every game."

"Staying healthy is the most important thing. I would like to get 100 yards in every game."

Atkin's single-game rushing record was broken last year by sophomore George Scott, who carried the ball 42 times and ran for 237 yards. Atkins would like the record back from Scott, who is out for the season with a leg injury.

"I'd like to carry the ball 42 times," said Atkins. "I carried 28 times against North Carolina and I felt like I could carry it 28 more. When George broke my record, I was happy for him. He works hard and he deserved it.But people made it sound like I wasn't any good any more. I'm happy for George, but I don't like anyone taking anything away from me."

Undoubtedly, the key for Atkins is to stay healthy. If he does, his chances of going high in the NFL draft are good, according to two pro scouts. This past off season, Atkins has been diligently lifting weights to strengthen his body, something he says he regrets not doing before. He also started going to church. It's all connected for Atkins.

To get your body together, you get your mind together," said Atkins. "And that's what I've been doing."

"I was just talking with Preacher (Alvin Maddox, backup tailback and his best friend) about our years here. We realize now how people really are, and that you've got to look out for No. 1 (yourself) and forget about what people say.

"I told Preacher, if I made it through here for four years, I can handle anything. I learned more playing football than in class. And I'm glad, in a way."