Recently there has been talk about dropping or cutting back athletics in the D.C. public schools for the obvious reasons: personal cutbacks and a lack of available money to support the programs.

I hope it doesn't happen.

For many of our inner-city youngsters, participating in athletics is still to some extent the main avenue to a better way of life. And the D.C. public schools have produced a long and distinguished list of student-athletes who have gone on to bigger and better things, in sports and other professions.

Many of these men and women, black and white, are now doctors or lawyers or professional football, basketball and baseball players. They used athletics and didn't allow athletics to use them. There are thousands of success stories.

I'm not just talking about people like Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Maury Wills and Willie Wood, who are some of the city's all-time great athletes. I'm also talking about Cecil Turner of Spingarn, who played for the Chicago Bears in the early 1960s and now is a special agent for the FBI, and Dick Drummond, a former all-Met running back from Wilson who is now a doctor, and Craig Anderson, who went from Anacostia High School to pitching for the New York Mets and now works as the business manager at Le-high University.

Let me tell you about another athlete, a young man whose junior high school principal, William B. Stinson of Brown Junior High School, once predicted would not live to finish high school.

That athlete went on to play football, basketball and baseball at Spingarn High School, but it never came easy.

During his senior year, his mother was hospitalized after a nervous breakdown and he and his three brothers were separated from each other, scattered to other families around the city.

The athlete literally lived in the streets, sleeping in cars and washing in public restrooms, carrying all his possessions with him because everywhere -- and nowhere -- was his home.

Many times he thought about dropping out of school, but because he was an athlete, because he loved the challenge of competition, he stayed in school. a

The athlete was always in hot water with his coaches. Baseball Coach Leo Hill kicked him off the team because the athlete thought he was Willie Mays, trying to do it all himself. Football Coach Dave Brown once locked him on the team bus at halftime of a game against Phelps because the athlete chewed out his quarterback for not throwing more passes his way. Basketball Coach William Roundtree dropped him from the team for a selfish and self-centered attitude.

When that happened, the athlete transferred to Eastern High School and then to Fairmont Heights high School in Prince George's County, where he finally graduated. But he always stayed in touch with his old football coach, Dave Brown, at Spingarn. And Brown talked Clarence (Big House) Gaines, the famous head basketball coach at Winston-Salem State, into giving the athlete a scholarship.

The athlete, if you haven't figured it out by now, was me, and everything that's happened ever since -- most of it good -- I can honestly say I owe to the D.C. public school system and its athletic program.

The other day, I asked Coach Brown why he decided to take a special interest in me, why he bothered to help me get a scholarship. He told me, "It wasn't any kind of special interest -- it was what we were supposed to do. "The average kid has some problems, just like every football team has problems, and that's why we were there.

"I sent you to Coach Gaines because he could relate to a kid like you. If I had sent you to another kind of school, you probably wouldn't have made it. But I knew Coach Gaines would look out for you. Anyway, I always believed it's not where you go, it's what you do when you get there. You were a teachable kid, Harold, because you listened when I talked to you, and that's what counts."

Coach Brown is just as upset about the cuts in budgets as I am, but he also told me he's heard it all before. He also said he believes the budget has never really increased very much from the 1950s. The money's gone up a little, but there are so many more schools now that every coach has about the same amount of money to work with as he's always had.

So when Coach Brown and I see people talking about cutting sports in Washington schools, we start thinking about all the kids who will be affected. wI also think athletic administrators ought to start thinking about making some money on our events. We should have night football games. We could get a lot of people to pay to see the Interhigh champions play the Metro Conference in football.

There has to be a better way, because these athletic programs are too important to the kids.