Just like any wide-eyed youngster with a celebrity father, Ray Leonard Jr. couldn't wait to follow in the footsteps of his boxing-famous dad, Sugar Ray Leonard. So when he was 8, young Leonard laced up the gloves and shortly thereafter was a Junior Golden Gloves champion.

"I had two fights; won the first by a decision and the other by a knockout," said Leonard, now a senior at Churchill High School. "But I got hit in the head too many times and I didn't like it. I knew it wasn't going to get any easier so I thought I better try something else.

"I only wanted to box because my dad did it. He didn't really want me to get into boxing but he didn't discourage me either. I guess he wanted me to see for myself what it was like. I found out, and by mutual agreement, I ended my boxing career with a 2-0 record."

With boxing out of his system, Leonard turned to track and football at Churchill. He was an immediate success in the hurdles and last year won the Montgomery County and region titles in the 110-meter high (14.7) and 300 intermediate (39.0) hurdles. As a junior, the 5-foot-9, 165-pound Leonard rushed for more than 400 yards and scored four touchdowns.

"Actually football was my first love, but I never had the chance to play for the boys clubs or Little League because I was always traveling with my dad," he said. "I really didn't play organized football until 10th grade. I've gotten bigger and stronger and was hoping to have a great season this year."

Everyone, including Coach Fred Shepherd, expected Leonard to have the big year. But strained ligaments in his ankle forced him to miss two games and play sparingly in two others. As a result of the injury, and Shepherd's new run-and-shoot offense that accents the pass, Leonard has totaled only about 400 yards rushing and receiving and scored five touchdowns.

"No, he is not leading the team in any categories because he has been hurt," Shepherd said. "But he has shown major improvement since his 10th grade year. He is quick, has good hands and is a very good player. He also runs back kickoffs and is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. We probably should come up with a formula to get him the ball more. But I'm a rookie at the run-and-shoot and still learning what to do."

Leonard will undoubtedly be a marked man when Churchill (7-1) plays neighborhood rival No. 16 Wootton (8-0) tonight at Churchill at 7:30.

Each team remains in contention for a Maryland state Class 4A playoff berth, with tonight's winner putting itself in excellent position.

"The players know what is happening," Shepherd said. "I told them before the Gaithersburg game last week {Churchill won, 24-7}, if we won two of our last three, we would have a good chance to get in," Shepherd said. "After tonight, we finish with {No. 1} Springbrook, so you see how important this game is. It is our big neighborhood rivalry game and a game we both need to win. Could you ask for anything more?"

Leonard's quickness could be a tremendous asset against the tough Patriots. Wootton, enjoying its finest season ever, has allowed only 42 points. Except for a couple of breakdowns in a 20-19 win over Sherwood two games ago, Wootton has been extremely consistent on defense.

Leonard, who has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in his two varsity seasons, will be a key receiver in the run-and-shoot.

"I enjoy catching the ball. I just want to be an asset to the team and be known as an all-purpose back," he said.

Leonard said the pressure of being the son of a celebrity wore off long ago.

"When I first started to play, I felt that pressure. I ran a kickoff back {for a touchdown} in my first game and the pressure came from that more than from my dad coming to the games," said Leonard. "But I've gotten used to all of that and I just do the best I can. My mom and dad are both nervous for me and they cringe when I get hit.

"My mother knows a lot more about football than my dad, but he's gotten better. My dream is to run two kickoffs back for touchdowns in the same game. Friday's game would be a good game to have your dream come true."