It begins this afternoon, officially. High school football. It's been coming to this, you may have noticed. Out behind almost any high school lately, young men in football gear have been sweating and grunting and popping one another. Getting ready for the season. Now it's here. Things begin anew.

Behind Georgetown Prep the other evening, big kids were coming across the lawn from the dining hall on their way to the gym and a meeting. A football team meeting. They all looked like they'd been lifting weights -- big chests and arms. Prep didn't lose any games last season and this group, while cheery, seemed intent, as if it meant to have just as good a season as last. Practice hadn't been all that bad that day, a few of them were saying -- they'd run a lot, but it hadn't gotten too tough yet. It would. The broken bones and disappointments and victories and glory would all come.

That was just the warmup for the real thing today and tomorrow and all the Fridays and Saturdays into November -- those particular days of autumn when football takes over at the high schools, making for many the return to school -- this nervous, hot, sticky, uncomfortable, uncertain, get-acquainted time of year -- worth it.

High school football can be a rite of passage for those who play it, a large part of life for some who coach it, a time to dream for those who can't suit up (not big enough, not fast enough), the reason why students come together on Friday nights, rolling up in their parents' cars while their parents worry like crazy.

A young player can wear a famous pro's number and maybe even be good enough to go on to play in college. A few even make it to the pros. Most won't. Most, though, will be able to look back and remember how good they looked in their pads or some play they made -- throwing the block, if not the pass, for the winning touchdown (or doing something on the play that led to the winning touchdown, or at least the play that led up to the play that led to . . . ).

Maybe just having a great seat on the bench or getting to hand the tee to the kicker before the winning field goal or a cup of water to the quarterback while he conferred on the sidelines with the coach, just before he nodded that he grasped the play, pulled his helmet down smartly, trotted back to the huddle and threw a 60-yard completion, as ordered. Maybe the student wasn't even a player at all, but up in the stands and falling in love with a cheerleader. A Woody Allen daydreamer.

This is the time of year for beating rivals and whooping it up with the top down. A Saturday afternoon victory has its advantages -- the celebrating has a way of lasting into the night. But Friday afternoon games, ones that finish up just about at darkness when the air is damp, they're sweet because so many right things have happened in just a couple of hours: School's let out for the week, the team's won and Monday morning is too far off to think about.

Nobody, almost nobody, reaches high school age without knowing the significance of the football season. Word gets around. Some years ago, 10-year-old boys would read about it in such books as "Teen-Age Football Stories," like "Headline Hero" or "The Left-Footed Halfback." From "Headline Hero": "Ace didn't hesitate. He tucked the ball under his arm and, head down, feet pounding, he dove for glory . . . Ace lay there for a moment, then rolled over and got to his feet. The stands were still shouting his name."

That's the lived-for moment and the reason why Ace and not the guy in the stands gets the cheerleader. It's hard to keep your head on straight as a high school football hero; one of the things a coach looks out for. High school coaches aren't often celebrated for keeping kids straight or producing surgeons or statesmen or caring citizens, but veteran coaches know this is as important as creating football legends.

"I can usually tell how a player is going to do in life by the way he reacts to adversity on the football field," Gaithersburg High School's John Harvill said this week. And if a player isn't reacting as he should, if he pouts or mopes, coaches like Harvill -- he's 62 years old and took over as head football coach 30 years ago -- let the player know. Harvill wants to win -- "I can probably get too charged up for my age" -- but he has experienced the gamut in teams (last year's won the Maryland AA championship) and knows that high school football, when one is 16 and all the world is a fall day, can sometimes help shape men.

If one is a coach long enough, Annandale's Bob Hardage said this week, his players come back. "Some of the guys say I've mellowed," he said, but, of course, he hasn't. It's his old players who've changed. High school football may not be important to them in the way it once was, as perhaps the central drama of their lives. But it's important in a different way and every bit as sweet.