It was to be the beginning of a new football season for 0-5 Howard and for Todd Meiklejohn, the best offensive lineman the Bison have had in years.

Meiklejohn, a 6-foot-2, 240-pound freshman, graded at 90 percent in Howard's otherwise dismal, 35-12 season-opening loss to Maine. With less than a minute to go in that game, however, Meiklejohn suffered torn ligaments in his left knee and was expected to be out for the season.

He defied predictions after arthroscopic surgery and declared himself ready to play in Saturday's homecoming at RFK Stadium (1 p.m.) against Virginia State, one of only two teams the Bison defeated last year. With Meiklejohn back, what had become the team's weakest position was expected to become its strongest.

Meiklejohn's comeback lasted less than an hour. In his first practice in pads, he threw a block and "heard a bunch of things pop in my other knee."

Meiklejohn will not know the verdict until this weekend, but, by Wednesday night, he did not have to hear Dr. Pete Gladden's prognosis.

"It was a freak accident," said Meiklejohn, who attracted attention from schools such as Florida, but chose Howard because five of his former South Ridge High School (Miami) teammates were awarded scholarships there. "Coach (Tom) Seward said, 'Get up, you're not hurt.' I guess it's his job to say things like that, but now I'm experienced at it. I knew different."

Following Meiklejohn's latest injury, reserve center Darryl Tilghman also suffered a knee injury. In last week's 12-7 loss to Winston-Salem State, Howard used Eddie Hayes, who was converted from a tight end in midweek practice, at center. Hayes and left guard Grady Crosby, who started because Pat Boyd was under a one-game suspension for missing a practice, graded in the 50 percent range.

Howard led Winston-Salem, 7-6, and had the ball with three minutes remaining. But the Howard line was unable to hold off the Rams, and a series of mistakes enabled Winston-Salem to score the winning touchdown with 47 seconds left.

"You cannot win football games with players grading out in the 50s," said Howard Coach Willie Jeffries, who believed the return of Meiklejohn and Boyd this week would have made the difference against Division II Virginia State (3-2-1). "We simply did not block them."

Meiklejohn, who is interested in eventually getting a doctorate in clinical psychology, said he will accept his redshirt and start again next year with four years of eligibility.

"Right now, I'm pretty much disappointed and depressed," he said. "Rehabilitation the second time will be the longest part for me. I guess somebody just intended for me not to play this year. I'm just a man who has been brought to his knees -- literally."