For the last three years, George Rogers has been the best-kept secret in college football. The South Carolina tailback was the nation's second leading rusher in 1979 behind Heisman Trophy winner Charles White and began this season as the Gamecock's alltime leading rusher with 3,310 yards. Although a leading candidate for the Heisman award this year, Roger was barely known outside his dormitory room until this month.

A half-serious joke going around Columbia was that Rogers should have auditioned for an American Express Card commercial: "Hi. You probably don't recognize me without my helmet and No. 38, but I'm George Washington Rogers."

Rogers lost a bit of his anonymity after the first four South Carolina games. He has rushed for 544 yards (6.5 yards per carry), including 142 Saturday to lead the Gamecocks (3-1) to a 17-14 come-from-behind upset over a startled Michigan team and 104,000 fans in Ann Arbor.

An all-out media blitz the previous wek left Rogers numb from all the hours spent conducting interviews. Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports spent a total of seven days the past two weeks asking Rogers "every question in the world you could think of."

One visitor told Rogers it must be satisfying to finally get attention after being ignored on most of last year's all-American lists and finishing seventh in the Heisman voting.

"It's pretty nice, and I like to be cooperative and all," said Rogers, sprawled on a sofa in the lounge of the team dorm. "But I haven't had time to study or concentrate on football for the last couple of weeks with all the writers down here.

"I don't really mind, but it bothers me more than anything that everybody who comes here wants to interview just me and not my teammates. Hey, this ain't no one-man show. If you're gonna write about me and all those yards, you gotta write about my team -- especially my offensive line, because without them I couldn't gain a thing.

"Sure, the Heisman sticks out in every college back's mind, but the main thing is winning. It would be nice, and I'd appreciate it, but winning comes first. I want people to believe I'm a team player," said Rogers.

Rogers' blasts out of the I-formation have been largely responsible for the recent success of the Gamecocks, who were 8-3 last season and lost to Missouri, 24-14, in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

"They don't pull any punches. They're going to give the ball to George Rogers and he's coming straight at us. The problem is we can't stop him," said Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden before he watched Rogers run through his Seminole defense for 186 yards last year.

The major reason Rogers has gone unnoticed is that never in his four years at South Carolina has a Gamecock game been nationally televised. The other reason is that South Carolina is without conference affiliation.

"We've been getting messed around by the networks and there's no two ways about it." Rogers said. "They put Wake Forest on national (television) before us. A couple of weeks ago I heard that Illinois and Michigan State were on. Man, I don't believe it. The only way we can get on is to get another bowl bid."

Football has been a means of existence for Rogers since his impoverished childhood in various tenement slums across Georgia. "For a kid growing up like I did, football makes or breaks you," Rogers said.

He reluctantly told a magazine writer that his fater deserted George and his mother -- and later was convicted of murder, leaving them to subsist on welfare and rags for clothes.

Rogers said he skipped many a high school class in Atlanta to do degrading work for $1.80 an hour to pay for the insurance required by the state to play high school football. Rogers got very little playing time at Class AAAA Roosevelt High, so he returned to his hometown of Duluth, Ga., to rush for more than 2,300 yards his senior year and lead the town high school to a Class AA championship.

"You know, that writer made the story sound really sad," said Rogers. "But there were some really good times back then with my folks and playing as a kid. I don't like to talk about it because that stuff happens to a lot of people every day. I ain't no hero or nothing though."

Georgia Coach Vince Dooley, who got a late start in recruiting Rogers, said George is probably more dedicated and determined to succeed than many college athletes because of his childhood difficulties.

"When George got here (Columbia) he wouldn't even eat steak when it was served at the training table because he never had steak as a kid," said one team observer. "He would go back to one of the cooks and ask her to fix him a turkey sandwich or something. He's really not a big eater at all. It's amazing."

It's scary to think what a little nutrition over the past 21 years would have done to improve Rogers' already massive frame of 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, which is so lean it looks as if his skin were stretched over his bones. Rogers can also run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, which gives him an explosive combination of speed and size that neither Charles White nor Billy Sims possessed when they caused nightmares for rushing defenses.

Keep Your Eyes On This Man reads a promotional poster that the university has circulated in an attempt to boost Rogers for a Heisman candidacy. But defenders have found that extremely difficult to do as Rogers either floats by them or uses his massiive upper body in a good Earl Campbell imitation. The flip side of the poster tells how Rogers has run for 100 yards 19 times consecutive games. He has rushed for more than 200 yards twice.

Even more impressive is that he rushed for 285 yards against Southern California (a 23-13 loss) and Michigan, two of the best defensive teams in the nation. He might be leading the nation in rushing if the Gamecocks hadn't run up such abscene scores in its first two games. South Carolina Coach Jim Carlen rested Rogers after only 13 carries for 153 yards in a 37-0 win over Pacific and 10 carries for 108 yards in a 73-0 whipping of Wichita State.

"George Rogers is the best running back in the nation," insists Carlen. "I thought that last year too. Better than Sims or anybody. He'll get his yards on any defense -- Notre Dame, Mitchigan, USC, it doesn't matter. But the whole key to this Heisman thing is television exposure."

ABC Television, which packaged its television schedule sometime last winter, has been known to make revisions, but only if the game is of epic proportions. With a Nov. 1 date with Georgia and fabulous freshman tailback Herschel Walker, perhaps, ABC will want to showcase "The Other USC" and the man Jimmy The Greek called the odds-on favorite to win the 1980 Heisman Trophy.