"Now," said Ed Epps to the final member of his small class of teenagers, "what would you do if I gave you the keys to my car."

"Give them right back to you," she said, lowering her head, "because I don't know how to drive and don't want to talk about it."

But she did talk. Epps coaxed her into the conversation about driving -- and the girl was pleasantly surprised to learn not only how much she knew about operating a car but also how well she could relate it to her peers.

This took place at a tidy camp tucked in the Virginia countryside not far from Culpeper, a setting and a subject that would seem out of place for Epps, one of Washington's best basketball players in the mid-1960s and later a standout at Utah State.

In truth, they were quite comfortable with one another, for although there are impressive athletes and impressive athletic facilities at Camp Rapidan the emphasis the last three weeks was on everything but athletics.

"We're trying to introduce youngsters to careers they wouldn't ordinarily be exposed to," said Ruth McLain, project director for Unions for Youth. These are kids 14 to 16 who are economically disadvantaged, as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and residents of the District.

"Through the recreation department and CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) we got 600 names who met the eligibility requirements."

About 200 took part in the program. Nationwide, the project -- directed by the National Football League Players Association and funded in large part through a Labor Department grant -- served about 2,800 youngsters in five cities.

Indications are that the number of camps, now in the Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and San Francisco areas in addition to Washington, will be doubled next year, according to Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFLPA.

"I'd like to get more involved in this," said Wilbur Thomas, former American University basketball star who has worked at the camps in Cleveland and Chicago in addition to being assistant director at Camp Rapidan. "I came from there."

He and Epps, who volunteered one day a week to talk about driver education to each group of campers, are deeply committeed to the NFLPA idea for exactly opposite reasons.

"When I was young, in the sixth grade, an athlete took the time to come to my elementary school and talk about setting up goals for life, eating properly, that sort of thing," said Thomas. "Carl Krammerer (Redskin defensive end from 1963 to 1969) would come to Harrison Elementary School two or three times a week.

"Every now and then when I'm eating I think about that guy."

"Nobody ever did anything like this in my neighborhood," said Epps.

There are many more speakers than athletes -- and the athletes Thomas requests are ones he knows will not only relate well with the campers but give them an honest look at themselves and their sports.

Roy Jefferson and George Nock have been there, and they tell the boys not to stop dreaming athletic dreams but also to develop interests and skills in other areas for the time sport closes its doors.

"The goal of every boy before he gets here probably is to become a pro athlete," McLain said, "and the girls want to be secretaries.

"After they're here," Garvey interrupted, "the girls want to be pro athletes and the boys want to be secretaries."

Not quite. But a typical morning last week found about 60 campers divided into sessions with a photographer, a woman physician, a field engineer and others. Discipline has become more strict with each week; attention increases as the week progresses, Thomas said.

Each morning began with what is called World of Work, where the technical aspects of finding a job -- from the interview process to filling out a resume -- are examined in detail. Skits involving the campers then are used to emphasize all points -- and McLain ended one session by asking the group:

"How many opportunities do you get to sell yourself?"

The campers answered: "One."

In addition to directing teenagers toward as many job avenues as possible, the camps try to provide an adult-like climate. Each session elects a mayor and council from its campers and those leaders assume as much power as they can handle.

Last week's mayor was a girl, Chris Paige, 16, who was talking, in an outwardly bashful manner, about how she and the council were trying to set an example and also motivate the other campers.

As Chris was talking, McLain took a cigarette from a pack and began to light it. The young mayor of Camp Rapidan suddenly looked up at the director of a million-dollar project and said firmly: "We don't permit smoking here. We have a place for that."

Slightly flustered, but more than slightly proud, McLain slipped the cigarette back in the pack.