The future of football at many area high schools is in jeopardy because teams are having an increasingly difficult time finding players, according to interviews with athletic directors and coaches.

Nowhere is the problem more serious than in the District's Interhigh League.

"I can see the time when there won't be any more football in the Interhigh if things keep going as they are," said Interhigh Athletic Director Sam Jones. "I think we have to do away with the 2.0 rule," which requires a minimum grade-point average to participate in extracurricular activities.

"There are kids who want to play, but can't because of the rule. I think we can come up with something to modify it. But basically, the time has vanished when a kid would do anything to play sports. There are too many other things to do. Some of them would rather be on the streets making $500 a day selling drugs."

Veteran H.D. Woodson Coach Bob Headen has managed to keep his program among the Interhigh's best, but he also has seen the downturn of football.

"We have only 31 varsity players, the lowest number I ever had in 20 years," he said. "The last three years, it has been bad. In two or three years, if things don't change dramatically, we won't have football in the Interhigh. At least two or three schools won't have teams and we might be one of them. That C average, guys in jail, drugs and just plain no interest in the sport has seriously hurt our program."

Headen said the Warriors will start seeing the first major change next season. He does not foresee scheduling interesting nonleague games with larger schools such as Woodbridge and Carroll.

"Next year, I don't plan to play anyone except Interhigh schools," he said. "At least all of us are even. We will get tired at the same time. We have done all right in the past, but I can see what is happening. In the fourth period, our kids are drained {when playing teams with more reserves} and I refuse to put that strain on them anymore."

That is how Bullis Athletic Director Walt King felt when it was decided to cancel four of the school's Interstate Athletic Conference games and try to replace them with easier opponents. Injuries had reduced an already-depleted squad to 16 players.

"We could have thrown bodies out there, but that was never even discussed," King said. "The only thing we were concerned with was the safety factor, and we would have had to play kids {from the junior varsity} who just are not ready yet."

King, the former football coach at Bullis, said making drastic changes had been discussed even before the season started. Another IAC school, Sidwell Friends, decided before the season to play a downgraded schedule in hopes of saving its program. King originally hesitated making the move in deference to the older players on the team and the other schools.

"None of the other athletic directors took the position that we were ruining the league's athletic program by doing this," said King. "They are just concerned where football is going in the IAC."

He hopes playing a lesser schedule, rather than one in which the Bulldogs would be trounced in most of their games, would maintain interest among the current underclassmen and enable Bullis to go back to its regular schedule next year.

Two weeks ago, Bullis defeated Pallotti, a small private school that entered the game with the area's longest winning streak.

There are no regulations in any area jurisdiction dictating how many players a team must have. Those with small rosters learn to cope.

"I don't look at this as being tough; you just get to coach a lot more with the way we have to do things," said Leo Campion, the third-year coach at Poolesville, which has 19 players, including four sophomores.

Poolesville has only 75 seniors (including girls). The football program was not helped last year when the school also decided to start a soccer team.

Campion said he must be "incredibly flexible" at practices because his players are required to learn numerous positions.

Junior Steve McDougal is "a tight end, a defensive end, our punter and the backup quarterback," said Campion, who was down to 17 players for a few games because of injuries. "That is as low as I would want to go. You turn around on the sidelines and only see six players behind you. Sometimes, there are more statisticians and coaches back there than players."

Cardozo Coach Bobby Richards, who reached the Interhigh title game with only 19 players in 1988, sees his major disadvantage as preparation.

"This is getting ridiculous and it is getting very frustrating," he said. "This can't go on and I can't see the Interhigh League surviving at this rate. We can't practice much. We can't even hit each other in practice."

Player turnout is down at some schools -- Stuart and Annandale in Northern Virginia are prime examples -- because the surrounding neighborhoods have become more ethnically accented, particularly with eastern Asian families whose youngsters prefer to play soccer or concentrate on their studies.

"They can say we have as many students as other schools we have to play," said one coach who did not want to be identified. "But the truth is a lot of the kids going to school here now are foreign. And they are fine kids, but they did not grow up with football and have no interest playing it. That means I really am not drawing my team from a pool of as many kids as those other schools."

Al Thomas has seen both sides. He had 87 players in 1987, his final year at Seneca Valley, one of Montgomery's largest schools, before leaving for Damascus, where he has 28 this year.

"At Damascus, every one of our players, except maybe two or three, play offense and defense," said Thomas. "If a kid has a broken finger or bruise, he plays if he can."

Thomas, however, said it is not just a problem of being at a small school.

"I hate to say this, but I think we are just starting kids too young on football," he said. "We have one of the great feeder programs in our community called the Cougars. Their pony {age 9 and under} team has 50 youngsters and has to make a cut. The 10-11-year-old team has 34. The eighth-grade team had 17. As the kids get older, they are losing interest.

"But look at what these kids have when they are younger. They play with top-of-the-line equipment. They play in a big game at the end of the season called a Super Bowl. They play on our field under the lights and they get a five-foot trophy when it's all over. By time we get them in high school, it is almost a downer to play JV football."

Thomas sees the problem getting worse.

"It's sad to think a 15-year-old is burnt out on anything, but that's what it seems," he said. "It's got me worried and I don't know what the solution is."