What it was, as the old Andy Griffith story goes, was football.

Griffith once told an engaging tale of a country bumpkin stumbling upon a weird gathering in a field, where a whole passel of big old boys chased after a lopsided pumpkin, whomping each other in its pursuit.

He would have liked Catholic University's homecoming game yesterday.

It had two national anthems, 20 kegs of beer, a sun-washed autumn field ringed with fiery oaks, a raucous crowd of 4,500 (biggest in 10 years at CU) and a grimy, gamey brawl on the field that wound up a 19-18 Catholic victory over Georgetown.

This annual matchup is for "bragging rights in Washington," said Catholic Coach Joe Pascale, who admitted everyone knows each of these teams would be lucky to escape alive from a meeting with big-time Maryland or Howard.

But this is Division III, intercollegiate athletics' carefree bottom drawer. It's not that the players don't care; just that they play for the plain old joy of it. No scholarships, no money, no TV. What it is is football.

So when it was over and the roaring multitudes in the stands had spilled their beer in joy one last, loud time, the two teams marched out on the 50-yard line and shook every opposing hand and the Stephen Dean trophy was turned over to the Catholic players who bore it off the field in triumph. Then they stood around a long time to kiss their girlfriends and parents and whoever else happened by, the pale sun sinking deeper behind the dome of the National Shrine.

Stephen Dean is no wealthy alumnus who donated the golden football on a pedestal that goes to the winner each year. He was the basketball manager for Georgetown as an undergraduate and became sports information director at Catholic before dying in his 20s five years ago. He was a delight to all who knew him.

And this game was a delight to all who paid attention, which would probably be about a third of the throng.

"The difference between Division III and Division I," explained Georgetown Athletic Director Frank Rienzo, "is that for Divison III players it's recreational and educational and for the fans it's social, rather than competitive.

"If the fans all turned around," he said, spinning 180 degrees to stare at the Shrine instead of the field, "it wouldn't make any difference."

Catholic appeared on the way to ignominious defeat as quarterback Tony Gallis was sacked in the end zone in the first quarter for a 2-0 Hoya lead, then Georgetown's Ed Trujillo ran back the ensuing Catholic punt for a 63-yard touchdown and the home team was down, 9-0.

But Gallis, a freshman who came trundling down from Scranton, Pa., to play ball despite Catholic's 1-8 record last year, led his mates storming back to a 19-9 lead at the half as he passed to senior Mike Kosar for two touchdowns.

Catholic did nothing offensively in the second half but managed to hang on for the one-point victory when Georgetown place-kicker Erich Beringer missed two short-range field goals in the third quarter and the final extra point after a fourth-quarter Hoya touchdown.

Heartbreaking?

What it was was football.

Catholic wide receiver Chris Veno had his mother and friends and even grandfather, in an orange deer-hunting cap, on hand for the game. They came down from Scranton. He kissed his mom, then he kissed his grandpop, too.

Said Veno of Division III, "This is fun. It's not a job. It's fun."

While football players at big-time Maryland practice and meet four or five hours a day, at Catholic and Georgetown it's two hours a day, unless you have a class that conflicts. The coaches are part-timers; Scotty Glacken at Georgetown has his own business; Joe Pascale at Catholic teaches in Fairfax.

The football programs cost about $50,000 a year to run, which is about 4 percent of what they spend at a big-time Division I operation.

At Catholic even that was too much. Two years ago the administration found football too expensive to support with regular school funds, and a vote was taken on campus. The students decided to keep it going on their own, and each undergraduate for the last two years has kicked in $15 in addition to all other expenses, just to keep the sport alive.

Glacken, who was an all-ACC quarterback at Duke and a pro with the AFL Denver Broncos, thinks Division III is the sleeper in college sports.

"There's more Division III teams now than Division I and II combined," he said. "Division III is going to be the beneficiary as marginal Division I schools cut back," he said.

Both Georgetown and Catholic have ancient big-time football histories, and both sent teams to the Sun Bowl and Catholic once went to the Orange Bowl. But that was 30 and 40 years ago.

Now they play for the fun of it.

Oh yes. They played the anthem twice because somebody forgot that a nice little brass and wind ensemble was performing it in the stands. The brass and winds got drowned out by the loudspeaker playing a tape.

The Catholic fans were afraid GU might not bring enough fans so they organized a dummy Georgetown Pep Club that paraded around dressed as nerds playing kazoos and leading cheers of "What the hell's a Hoya?" They were pelted with ice and beer.

Bands played and people sang and the home team won, like it's supposed to.

What it was was football.