nce Steve Streater and his two brothers watched professional football together and dreamed of the day they would be in the National Football League.

"When the accident happened, that's what I thought of," said Eric, the youngest and a freshman receiver at North Carolina. "How we used to watch TV and say someday we'd all be there."

James, the oldest, made it as a quarterback in the Canadian Football League. Steve almost realized his dream, but was involved in an auto accident that left him with a damaged spine and his family deeply in debt.

But Steve Streater keeps looking forward, and he still is certain he will walk again, even if his doctors are pessimistic. And now, Streater says he hopes someday to be a high school football coach, even if he has to do it from a wheelchair.

The accident occurred just after Streater, now 24, had returned to North Carolina from Washington, where he had signed a three-year contract with the Redskins as a punter and defensive back.

He had been ignored in the 1981 NFL draft despite finishing his senhe Raleigh-Durham airport. Streater hadn't even called his parents to tell them the good news when he took the wheel of his new sports car and headed toward Chapel Hill.

Not far from the airport, Streater lost control of the car on a wet curve. It skidded sideways, crossed a ditch, hit a bank of dirt and flipped over. Neither occupant of the car was wearing a seat belt. Bratton received a few scratches as he was tossed about the vehicle's interior. Streater hit his head on the roof, fracturing and dislocating the sixth cervical vertebra, and damaging the seventh, at the base of the neck. Although he never lost consciousness, he could not move from the chest down.

"There's no one to fault," Streater says now. "I can't answer the question why, so I'm just trying to take it in stride, hoping that there's something better for me down the road."

The medical prognosis is not encouraging. Although Streater can expect to live a full number of years, the nerve damage he sustained is irreversible, according to Dr. Joseph DeWalt, director of sports medicine at UNC and the Tar Heels' team physician. "A nerve has no ability to regenerate itself," DeWalt said. "If it's contused severely, it won't come back. Steve's gotten back about all that he's going to get."

After the accident, Streater underwent a spinal fusion operation to stabilize the vertebra and prevent further injury. At first paralyzed from the chest down, he since has regained sensation as low as his navel. "Some doctors say I will walk again, and some say I won't," Streater said. "The feeling will work on down eventually."

Streater shows little or no sign of bitterness about his fate.

"Steve is a very positive person," said DeWalt. "Football players by nature complain, as you know. But I never heard Steve utter an unfavorable thing about any person, any place, any thing. He's a very remarkable young man."

Streater was back on the football field four months after his accident, coaching special teams and defensive backs and working with the punters at Chapel Hill High School. He and Bratton, who coached defensive backs and offensive ends, worked with the team four days a week for 11 weeks, and Streater attended every home game. They earned $500 each.

"I really enjoyed working with the younger kids and passing along what made me successful, not just as a football player, but as a person," Streater said.

Two semesters shy of graduation, Streater is enrolled at North Carolina this fall, earning a physical education degree with a speciality in recreation. He wants to coach again; that he may have to do so from a wheelchair does not worry him. "I figure I'll be able to get across what I'm trying to say," he said. "If not, I'll figure out a way somehow."

Through it all, those who know him best say Streater has not changed a bit. "Same old crazy guy," said his brother Eric.

"I don't think anything will ever change Stevie," said James Streater Sr. He glanced at a picture of his son in the family's Sylva, N.C., home and chuckled. "It's just like he's looking at me, laughing."

Contributions from a local "Steve Streater Day" paid for widening doorways and installing ramps for his wheelchair at home. There is also a burgundy and gold Redskins jersey with Streater's No. 5 hanging on his bedroom wall; it was presented by Washington General Manager Bobby Beathard when Streater was in the hospital.

"When I wake up, I see the jersey. And when I go to sleep I see the jersey," said Streater. "I'll always have it."

The jersey soon may be hanging somewhere else, though. Faced with more than $45,000 in bills resulting from their son's hospitalization and rehabilitation, the Streaters are considering selling their house to pay off creditors. But James Streater says he has no rancor or regret.

"The only thing I want Steve to do is get up and walk. I'll do all the rest," said Streater, a maintenance worker for the town of Sylva.

And so, with plenty of help from family and friends, Steve Streater struggles to realize another dream, one harder to achieve than that he and his brothers embraced long ago.

"To walk again is reaching for the stars for me," he said. "God knows how much I love sports, and He gave me a lot of ability. And to take that away, there has to be something better."