Joaquin Zendejas, 25, is an unemployed place-kicker. The San Diego Chargers drafted him and released him before his first season, the New England Patriots released him two years ago and the San Francisco 49ers released him last year.

Now, he sells paint in St. Louis. It's not a permanent job, he says.

"I know I still can play," he said. "All I need is another chance."

Recently, Zendejas received a brochure in the mail from something called the Eastern Regional Free Agent Camp, one of the couple dozen pro football tryout camps in the United States that feed off the defiance of the player who just won't stop trying. Zendejas had never heard of this camp, but he admitted he was interested.

"Anything to help get me back into football," he said.

The pamphlet said the camp, scheduled for March 30 in Lancaster, Pa., was "for serious players only." Guys like me, Zendejas said to himself.

All drills would be videotaped and every team in the National Football League, U.S. Football League and Canadian Football League would get a copy of the tape, free. The brochure also proclaimed that pro scouts would come and watch.

The price, according to the brochure, was $250, which is very high for tryout camps.

Still, Zendejas liked the idea. "If it's true, it sounds like a really good investment," he said. "They film you and send copies to all the NFL teams. It sounded really positive."

But is it? Of 15 NFL, USFL and CFL teams contacted at random by The Washington Post, all expressed reservations about the camp and most said they will not watch the videotapes because tapes don't provide the specific information needed to evaluate talent.

Camp organizer Stan Caterbone says six teams are sending scouts. When those six teams were contacted, only the New England Patriots said they probably will send a scout.

And Caterbone, who said he "is just trying to help the kids," admits he may have to postpone the camp until May, after the April 30 NFL draft, if more people don't sign up. (Players eligible for the draft are ineligible for his camp.) As of Wednesday, he estimated only 60 players had called to say they were interested, but he wouldn't know if they were coming until he received their checks.

"If I don't get 100, I won't do it," Caterbone said.

For unemployed football players looking for their big break, tryout camps, the cattle calls of organized football, are the only hope. That's why hundreds of former high school and college players pay the going rate of about $50 (Caterbone says his high cost is needed for the videotapes), not including motels, meals and plane tickets, to attend them, with the dream of being discovered.

According to the 15 professional teams, however, these players are wasting their time and money chasing nothing more than a pipedream.

"It's sad," said Washington Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard. "These camps cater to kids who have been cut two or three or four times and still think they can play. These guys still have that hope that they can play. In many ways, it's just a ripoff."

Most of the players who attend these camps are not good enough to make it, general managers say. If they were, they would have been snared long ago in pro football's intricate scouting net.

"Normally, players are picked over so much these days," said Dick Steinberg, director of player development for the New England Patriots, who probably will send a scout to Caterbone's camp if they have someone in the area that day. "They are screened so closely in college now."

When general managers are asked if a player from a tryout camp ever has made their final roster, most say, "No." They mention Herb Mul-Key, the running back George Allen found at a Redskins' tryout camp in the early '70s, but that's different, because the camp was organized by the Redskins and many of those players were invited to attend.

For come-as-you-are camps, these are the sad facts: for 10 years, Leonard King, a former World Football League scout, has run a tryout camp in Atlanta. He estimates 3,000 players have attended. Thirty, he said, have made pro rosters, and of those, he remembers two names: Alfred Jenkins of the Falcons and Herb Christopher of the Kansas City Chiefs. Jenkins played for nine years; Christopher for four.

"It's extremely tough," said King, who says he is losing money doing this and wonders how long he can go on. If one of King's "campers" signs a contract, King receives a cut. That's the normal procedure at most tryout camps.

"If I can hold on and get another prospect, I can do it," King said. "I can do it."

Because the chances are so slim that a player will be discovered at a tryout camp, many pro teams say they are not interested in them and will not send scouts. Several, in fact, wonder why they even exist.

"I don't believe in that, personally," New York Giants General Manager George Young said. "There is no way I want to mislead some young man into thinking that we're interested. We have enough trouble trying to sort out guys who have been playing in college for four years let alone guys in shorts working out on some quasi-drills."

It's a Catch-22. The players don't have a chance to be seen if they don't attend a camp, yet most teams won't send scouts to the camps (or watch the tapes). King's camp, generally regarded as one of the best in the country, has never drawn more than 12 scouts, King said.

For the first time in more than 20 years, the Dallas Cowboys are not holding their own free-agent tryout camp. The reason is obvious. It wasn't worth it anymore.

In all those years, only one player -- former Buffalo Bills linebacker Shane Nelson -- came out of that camp and played in the NFL.

"The chances are one in 4,000," said Gil Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys.

Caterbone, who also runs a financial consulting firm in Lancaster, has represented unemployed football players now and then, and says he feels for them. Last fall, he decided to put on a camp of his own and videotape it so every pro team, not only those who send scouts, could see his players.

In his brochure, he said the players' drills would be "developed in conjunction with professional football teams." But that's illegal, according to the NFL. Team officials can not be "directly or indirectly involved" in tryout camps, said Dick Maxwell, a league spokesman.

In October, Caterbone sent a letter to every NFL, USFL and CFL team, asking for their input. He enclosed a postcard to be sent back with advice. "Six or seven" teams sent them back, including the Cowboys and Patriots, he said.

"No way at all did we encourage him," Brandt said. "We just wrote what drills are usually done at these camps."

That is not a violation of NFL rules, Maxwell said. In fact, drills rarely change from camp to camp: the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, and strength tests are all standard fare.

Caterbone also trumpeted "exposure to all 49 United States and Canadian professional teams," which he now says is not true.

"That was the brochure," he said. "That brochure really didn't mean anything. But I've been careful when people call to tell them there is no guarantee the teams will look at the tape."

Then, there is the matter of the scouts. Caterbone said the Patriots, the Baltimore Stars of the USFL, and Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto of the CFL told him they are sending scouts. Only the Patriots said that was true.

"I'm not big on free-agent camps," said Bill Kuharich, the Stars' director of player personnel. "I told him if somebody's in the area, we'll send them, but we'll be in Houston that day for a game, so I don't think we're going to make it."

Said Tom Dimitroff, director of player personnel of the Ottawa Rough Riders: "I wasn't even aware of it."

His counterpart with the Toronto Argonauts, Tuffy Knight: "We have a couple other commitments and the chances may be we won't be there. We hold three free-agent camps of our own, where we invite 220 players. Out of those, we signed just six players last year, which is probably high for us. None made the team.

"If it's invitation only, you at least know the background of the people you invite. From my experiences, at the other kind of camp, you get bartenders, truck drivers and everyone else."

When informed of these remarks, Caterbone said, "I don't know what to think. I guess they must have had a change of heart."

Caterbone said he may be having one, too. "If all these teams think it's a waste, I'll just stop," he said.

He expects to make that decision next week.

Like so many get-rich schemes, camps come and go so quickly that the NFL, for one, makes no effort to keep tabs on them. Jack O'Donnell, a New Haven, Conn., lawyer who says he represents a "few" aspiring players, tried to start a tryout camp at $50 a player in Hamden, Conn., last year.

O'Donnell was hoping for 250 players. Only 80 showed up. He laughs when he talks about it now. He convinced Penthouse Magazine to give out T-shirts, he said, and a liquor company to provide refreshments.

"Non-alcoholic stuff, until after the camp," O'Donnell said. "I think a lot of kids got lost on their way back to the Bronx."

O'Donnell said he "tried to go first class," but, without the money 250 participants would have provided, he got caught short and lost several thousand dollars. "You would think these things would die out, yet they never do."

O'Donnell and Caterbone blame the pro teams. "They are tacitly supporting them by sending scouts," O'Donnell said.

"It's probably just paranoia," said the Patriots' Steinberg. "You figure someone else will be there watching if you're not."

Bob Woolf, the Boston agent who helped Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie to $7 million, refuses to criticize any camp, although he thought $250 was too much to charge a player.

"You know the feeling these players have. 'I know I coulda made it, I know I coulda made it.' They won't be satisfied the rest of their lives unless they try.

"So, if even one guy makes it, it's worth it."

Zendejas, who has two brothers and a cousin who are kickers in college or the pros, figured he would have to spend more than $700 to attend Caterbone's one-day camp.

When he was told what some of the coaches and team officials said of Caterbone's camp in particular and tryout camps in general, he backed off.

"I really wasn't thinking of going," he said. "It's too much money."