When Bruce Mesner and Neal Sampson were growing up, Yom Kippur never fell on a game day. They always celebrated the holiest day of the Jewish year with their families, attending services at their local synagogues.

Sampson and Mesner -- Maryland's starting defensive guards -- will miss practice today, in observance of Yom Kippur. And everyone will understand.

It was a different story last year, however. Maryland's football game with Penn State fell on the same day as Yom Kippur.

Both players took time out yesterday to reflect on their decision not to play that day -- in what most would call the biggest game of the season -- and how that decision was received by teammates and Coach Bobby Ross.

Mesner remembered that he and Sampson had known about the conflict as far back as the previous spring. But in the great football tradition of taking everything "one game at a time," they decided to wait until the Monday before the Penn State game to inform Ross of their decision to observe Yom Kippur and not play

"I remember when we told Coach Ross, his first reaction was, 'Can't you celebrate it on another day?' He didn't understand it was the Day of Atonement. He was really taken; he didn't really have anything else to say about it."

The players were caught off guard. "We knew Coach Ross was a very religious person," Sampson said, "and we talked to each other about what to expect. But we didn't think he wouldn't realize exactly what the holiday was and how important it is."

Sampson remembered that many of his teammates said they didn't understand, either. "Individually, a lot of them said, 'Hey, how could you pass up a game this big?' We tried to explain how important it was. But most ballplayers haven't been around Jewish athletes. There just aren't that many. I guess Coach Ross's contact with Jewish athletes had been minimal, also."

Both players wondered if they should have informed Ross earlier. Denny Murphy, who coaches the defensive guards, had gone to Mesner and Sampson in spring practice and pointed out the scheduling conflict.

"He asked us if the Penn State game falling on the Jewish holiday would cause a problem," Mesner said. "I was immature, and I said, 'No, it won't be a problem.' And I kept delaying it."

There had to be second thoughts. But Mesner and Sampson remained firm, and they had a lot of supporters. Students, some Jewish and some not, said they admired seeing athletes stand by a principle.

Sampson said he remembered thinking, " 'This is the Jewish holiday.' We spend 12 months a year preparing for those 11 Saturdays. But inside, I knew what we were doing was right."

Mesner said, "I felt compelled to do it. I wish I could have played, but there was no way. I kept hoping the game would be moved to a night game (after sundown, when Yom Kippur ends), like West Virginia the year before. But it wasn't."

All the while, Sampson and Mesner were picking up a supporter without knowing so.

Ross began trying to learn as much as he could about the Jewish holidays. Mesner and Sampson said they found out Ross had called Jewish alumni and a campus rabbi. "I know he had a long conversation with my parents," Mesner said.

Ross said yesterday, "I won't deny that I wanted them to play. It was really important that I found out more. I learned a lot. I have very strong religious beliefs myself, and I think it's important for everyone to respect others' beliefs . . .

The decision not to play still was difficult, especially for Mesner. Sampson went home to Yorktown Heights, N.Y., to be with his family. But Mesner stayed on campus and observed Yom Kippur with his best friend, Adam Copland. Mesner even went to see his teammates leave on the bus trip to Penn State and had tears in his eyes.

"But it helped me respect Coach Ross more as a person because he didn't say, 'Okay,' and hold a grudge or say, 'Okay,' and not find out any more about something that was so important to us," Mesner said.

In place of Mesner and Sampson, Maryland went with Greg Thompson, Bob Arnold and Tommy Parker. Thompson, a senior, had one of the best games of his career. But Maryland still lost, 25-24.

A year later, the Maryland locker room probably is a lot more enlightened. Mesner and Sampson say that when teammates tease them, everything is fine.

Mesner and Sampson will miss practice today and perhaps attend services, Mesner said, with the Alpersteins, a family that lives nearby. "It's always been a family day for me," Mesner said. "I think it will be that way again this year."

Saturday's 1 p.m. game with Michigan will not be seen locally. The Post reported yesterday that a local station might pick up the game, but because of Jefferson-Pilot's contract with the Atlantic Coast Conference, no game involving an ACC team can be seen in the ACC region at the same time Jefferson-Pilot's ACC game of the week is on the air. The Maryland game can be seen on taped delay on Home Team Sports Saturday at 11:30 p.m. and Sunday at 10:30 a.m.