BUFORD, GA., JUNE 27 -- Three years ago, Bennie Heard was one fight away from a chance at making the U.S. Olympic boxing team.

Today, Heard is serving a life term in a Georgia prison.

Heard's boxing career was born of boredom. He started doing push-ups and sit-ups and running the streets of Elberton, Ga., hoping to go to the Olympics. He had no experience, no trainer, no gym, no sparring partner.

Now, he is bored again. He can do push-ups and sit-ups, but the road leading away from the Georgia Training and Development Center, the prison in Buford, is one he cannot run.

He dreams of getting back into the ring, and he tries to find some way to pay an attorney to handle his appeal.

"Right now," he says, "I'm down. I need somebody to help me out."

The two-time U.S. Amateur Boxing Association light heavyweight champion was prevented from fighting Evander Holyfield in the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials by a hand injury. After surgery, he turned pro, signing a $350,000 contract with a cable television network.

Things went sour after Heard's pro manager sent him to Las Vegas to train, according to Heard's amateur boxing guru, Tom Moraetes, a juvenile court supervisor who directed the Augusta (Ga.) Boxing Club.

"Bennie got out there with no supervision and he ended up roaming the streets," Moraetes recently told The Athens Banner-Herald and Daily News. "Bennie never matured emotionally. . . . They sent Bennie to that gambling town and gave him an apartment and a car and turned him loose. He couldn't handle it."

Although his pro record was 2-0, Heard's cable TV contract was pulled because of lackluster performance. He wrecked his Corvette. A foot injury flared up. He went home to Elberton.

On Dec. 19, 1985, Heard played cards with a convicted felon named Neal Winn. Heard says he feared Winn was carrying a gun, and was forced to return some of his winnings to Winn.

The next night, Heard faced Winn again -- with a gun of his own. Heard says it was an accident; the gun went off in a scuffle. Winn's brother, Raymond Winn, was dead.

It took a Superior Court jury less than 30 minutes to find Heard guilty of murder.

"One of Raymond's brothers, Curt Winn, came to Jackson {Heard's first stop in the state prison system} and told me to my face that him and his mother know it was an accident," Heard told the Athens newspaper. "Everybody in that town knows it was an accident, and I still get life."

"All the evidence was against him," said Heard's attorney, Roger Davison. "The fact is, when he walked in there with a gun, he shot somebody. . . .He had told the guy he was going to kill him and he bought the gun and the bullets. He ended up killing somebody. Bennie just can't accept that."

Now, Heard rolls out of his prison bed just before 5 a.m. and starts his training regimen. He shadow-boxes, jumps rope and simulates hitting a speed bag. The boxing ring and training equipment were shipped out of the prison years ago, after too many inmates got hurt.

At night, he talks to his fellow inmates, most often about lawyers and appeals.

"I have an attorney in Atlanta who is going to look at my transcripts," Heard said, "but she says I have to come up with $500 before she will take my case."

"Bennie Heard is a Southern gentleman, a person who was taught from an early age to respect other people," said U.S. Olympic Boxing Coach Roosevelt Sanders. "I know he's not a bad kid."

"I can line up witnesses forever who'll tell you that Bennie Heard is a great kid," Moraetes said. "He never wanted to hurt anybody. I work with kids here in Augusta who are walking around on probation for the same thing Bennie did in Elberton. Bennie's not a murderer."