One of Jerry Claiborne's recently departed football players is a poet -- and the coach has become his foremost critic.

The poet is John Baldante, who began 1979 as a starter in Maryland's defensive backfield before a knee injury shelved him for much of the season.

As a junior, Baldante, who will be attending law school in the fall, wrote a poem, "Sudden Death," for a creative writing class.

"It's a poem about football and when people read it they sometimes think that it's antifootball," said Baldante, an honor student. "But I don't consider it antifootball. I like football, I'm glad I played the game because I learned a lot about life from it. But I think these things are a part of football too."

When Claiborne recently read the poem, he reacted angrily. "It's things like this that are hurting football," he said. "I'm tired of reading things about the violence of football and what's wrong with football. When is someone going to print something about what's good in football? No one ever does that. All you ever read are things written by guys who couldn't cut it who suddenly find something wrong with the game."

Claiborne refused to directly criticize Baldante or even talk about him. "My feelings about my players are between me and my players," he said.

Several Maryland players who read the poem reacted differently. Even those who did not like it said they found things that were a part of their football experience.

"I like it," said starting quarterback Mike Tice. "I don't think it's antifootball or puts football down. It's just about football. There are things in there I think every football player can relate to one way or the other.

"When you're in a locker room before a game there are 'Amens,' mingling with psych-inducing licks. You hear them together all the time. I think that's kind of unique to football."

All-ACC defensive back Ralph Lary, a friend of Baldante's, said he didn't like the poem but wasn't surprised Baldante had written it.

"Johnny B is very bright and very sensitive," Lary said. "I don't happen to feel that way about football. I think he sees it as a sort of negative, violent type of experience. I really don't see it that way. The poem really made me feel uncomfortable. But I think in the end what it shows is one guy's feelings about football."

Exactly, said Baldante, adding he was very surprised when several members of the team came to his room to talk to him about the poem.

"I was surprised that the guys kind of seemed to like it," he said. "I didn't really expect them to. I thought they would react more like Coach Claiborne did. But they seemed to share a lot of my thoughts."

"A lot of guys think things like that about football," Tice said. "John just happens to have the ability to communicate those feelings."

Baldante is from Colonia, N.J. In high school, he played quarterback and was captain of the football team. He also ran track.

He chose Maryland partly for a chance to play big-time football. He got that chance, seeing a little playing time as a sophomore, then moving into a starting role as a junior.

But as each year passed, Baldante found his attitude toward football changing.

"In high school I was a very gungho type of player," he said. "I loved everything about the game and I loved to hit.

"When I was being recruited, a place like Maryland was like a dream for me. But when you're recruited all you really see are Saturday afternoons. Football is not Saturday, it's Sunday through Friday and that's a lot different.

"You come to Maryland. I guess it's like any place where they play big-time football. You become assimilated into the system of Maryland football. The be-all and end-all is Maryland football in capital letters.

"You're asked to give up all your individuality, you have to become a part of a kind of machine, the machine that is Maryland football. At times I found myself feeling like a hypocrite because of it. It began to bother me. Why couldn't we win and still be individuals? I still haven't come up with an answer. Maybe that's just the way football is."

Baldante was also disturbed by the role religion plays in the Maryland program.

"Before every game we would all get together in the locker room and Coach Claiborne would say 'Okay men, let's get into our game plan.' Then everyone would get down on one knee and he would lead us in a prayer. I found myself thinking if what we weren't doing was asking God for the strength to go out and hurt someone. That bothered me at times."

In the poem, Baldante makes reference to that feeling in a phrase: "till suddenly the Christian linebacker instantly maims the assailant whose splintered spinal disc pierces his esophasgus . . ."

On this point, his teammates differ with Baldante. "There's a lot in the poem I identify with," said defensive back Lloyd Burruss, "especially in the description of the locker room. It reminded me a lot of high school.

"But when I pray before a game, I'm asking God to let everyone on both teams come out of the game healthy, that we'll play well and all come back here to the locker room in one piece when the game is over."

Claiborne, who is deeply religious and encourages all his players to attend church regularly, was particularly upset about the inference that his team prays for the strength to hurt people.

"Football is a contact sport," he said. "Those that don't like contact shouldn't be playing it. But no one is trying to hurt anybody. They're trying to make contact and make it hard.

"My belief has always been that if you're going to do something you do it all out. That's the way I think you ought to do everything.

"If I were a politician, I would want to be president. That doesn't mean there isn't room for people to play football who don't like contact. But they shouldn't play on this level. They should play for fun."

Baldante says he played for fun. He was described in last year's football brochure as a "strong tackler." Yet one member of the athletic department, after learning that Baldante had written the poem, said, "That figured. He was always a flake anyway."

"John's never been the kind to go out after a game with the guys and have a big time," Tice said. "But he's always been the kind of guy you could depend on on the field. In a lot of ways I think he has more insight into what we're doing than a lot of us do. He's a pretty straight thinker."

Baldante said he was not surprised by Claiborne's reaction to the poem. "I knew he would see it as an attack on football," he said. "I understand that, I wish he didn't see it that way but he's very set in what he believes in, especially when it comes to football."

Baldante says that he would not object to having his children play football someday, but not on the big-time level.

"I don't think they should have to deal with the kind of pressure, that's involved there," he said. "All those people watching and the coach knowing his job depends on winning games and putting people in the stands. Football should be fun, and I think on some levels, it is. But at this level, it all changes."

Even Claiborne concedes that point. "There's no question that the success of our football team is important to the University of Maryland in terms of fund raising among alumni," he said. "I'm aware of that. I always have been.

"But if I'm talking about teaching my children the right things in life, I'll take football. Do you know when most teen-agers get hurt or killed? During the afternoon, on the streets or on the way home from school. I'd rather have my children on a football field; their chances are better there."

Baldante still insists: "I'm not knocking the sport. I just feel there's a lot about it that's very rigid and very unthinking. People jump to defend it, they get very upset about people who criticize it. But do they ever think that maybe it could be a little different, a little better perhaps if people thought about criticism instead of jumping to know it down?" Sudden Death pipes within a stadium's stomach conglomerate the ceiling of a locker room parasites mold the paint-chipped cinder blocks like bread digested inside a cavity's muscous membrane submerged below a stagnant puddle crusted with flagellated algae and tobacco secretion, glops of athletic tape constipate the floor's drain then garnished with shoulder pads the christian linebacker prays upon a scar decorated knee as a naked light bulb dangling from an umbilical cord sporadically illuminates his blemished forehead abruptly amens mingle with the crack of psych- inducing licks all regurgitated onto the field elapsed minutes evaporate into visual panting till suddenly the christian linebacker instantly maims the assailant whose splintered spinal disc pierces his esophagus and an exalted fist shadows the carrion, a sputtering mouthpiece muffles the last echoing amen.