It started to get to John Koontz about two weeks ago -- the sudden celebrity status, the dozens of letters from colleges, the reporters.

He was supposed to visit the West Virginia campus at Morgantown two weeks ago and watch the Mountaineers play. But at the last minute he decided, "I had enough football for one week and said, 'Heck, I'm just going to go ride my horse.' "

Koontz has been up the road a lot lately to Dorcas, where he keeps Warrior, his 3-year-old Tennessee walker, ever since the news got out about the show he has been putting on at Petersburg High School.

Living in a community deep in the mountains of West Virginia, a three-hour drive directly west of Washington, Koontz still has managed to attract considerable attention.

He's been moving through defensive lines the same way the roads snake through these mountains -- weaving, twisting, bobbing, going every which way but straight.

His statistics have prompted interest at such schools as Maryland, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Tennessee and UCLA. Through six games this fall, the 6-foot, 175-pound halfback has rushed 80 times for 13 touchdowns and 1,094 yards, an average of almost 14 yards a carry.

He has caught seven passes for 153 yards -- almost 22 yards a reception -- and returned six kickoffs for 178 yards (nearly a 30-yard average) and 11 punts for 379 yards (a 35-yard average) and a touchdown. His 105 points scored include 13 extra-point kicks.

Even more amazing are his three-year totals. In 21 games, he has scored 34 touchdowns, 26 of those rushing, and has gained 3,216 yards rushing, an average of almost 16 yards a carry. He's also the leading scorer on the basketball team and an all-state baseball player.

Football followers from this area now speak his name with the same reverence reserved for the last two great running backs to come out of these hills -- Robert Alexander of West Virginia University and Curt Warner of Penn State. Those who are supposed to know such things -- players, coaches, scouts -- say Koontz is better.

In a small town (pop. 2,500) in which the pool hall and the Jesus Is Lord Christian Center are across the street from each other, Koontz has become a folk hero. "He's Petersburg's All-American boy," said Harold Garber, his high school principal.

"There's not much other reason to come out here," said John Gutekunst, a Virginia Tech assistant coach who made the trek from Blacksburg last Friday to watch Koontz play. The town's residents and his classmates also have sensed the excitement.

"In this county, he pretty well is a hero; he deserves to be," said Willard Ludwick, a Petersburg resident for the last 10 years. "No doubt about it, he's good."

"I enjoy looking at the school mail every day, just to see what schools are interested in John," said Garber. "On a given day, the postmarks come from far and wide. We're not used to this kind of thing at all."

Although the weight of celebrity occasionally is heavy, Koontz is handling the instant notoriety well, shying away good-naturedly from the hometown back-slapping.

"This is Smalltown, U.S.A.," said his mother, Janet. "You walk down the street with John and everyone comes up and speaks to him. When all this started, everybody knew he was a good athlete, but now it's gone beyond that and they're all really proud of him."

Beyond the hype, things haven't really changed much for him. He still says "ain't" -- much to his English teacher's chagrin. He still forgets to tuck in his shirt, prompting similarly reproachful looks from his mother.

"I don't think a lot of kids could handle the label 'star,' but he's borne up under it well," Garber said.

"As many pictures and newspaper articles have been done on him and as much hoopla as there's been, I don't think I've known John to be the least bit puffed up or impressed by what he's done," said his coach, Ron Stephens. "He's so good, he scares me sometimes. I wish I could get his birth certificate changed and keep him around a few more years."

About the only place Koontz isn't the subject of much ballyhoo is at home, where he must compete with Tom, his 11-year-old brother, and his sister Anjanette, captain of the cheerleaders, as well as the herd of children and neighbors that parades daily through the Koontz household.

As the Vikings (5-1) continue to roll toward a Potomac Valley Conference title, and as the Dec. 1 starting date for serious recruiting by colleges draws near, the days become more hectic for Koontz.

Last Friday was typical. In the afternoon, he and his teammates participated in a pep rally before the school's 850 students, grades seven through 12. During the assembly, he had to mount a stepladder and, grinning sheepishly, push a pie into Stephens' face.

Later, he was introduced to the Virginia Tech scout. That evening, with the Vikings' opponents dogging every step, he rushed for 126 yards on 11 carries, his second-lowest production of the season.

Throughout the day, he seemed to maintain his distance from the proceedings. "Johnny never talks ball, like all the other guys do all the time," said Winston Redman, Petersburg's quarterback. "He's just a good ol' country boy. He'd rather just take his eight-track tapes and go up in the hills."

"I pay attention to everything that's going on, but, heck, I can't think about it too much. I still have to play Friday night," Koontz said.

Some people, Koontz included, wonder occasionally if he has the desire to make it at a major college.

"When I was younger, I sort of wanted to do all this because everybody expected me to," he said. "But I'm starting to enjoy it now because it's not so hard."

Then there are those who have no doubts. His coaches say his aw-shucks demeanor belies keen competitiveness.

"John's got an internal drive most people don't realize -- until he steps out on a field and they see it," said his baseball coach, William Klein.

"He's a tremendous kid; not the egotistical 'look-at-me' type," Klein said. "Everybody in town realizes his potential. To say he's the center of attention would be an understatement. I'd say he's a once-in-a-lifetime athlete."

But, added Stephens, "He's still just plain old John Koontz is all."