The people who work the hardest, sacrifice the most, earn the least and do the most good are sometimes the ones who get punished and embarrassed instead of praised. That description probably fits Bob Headen, the football coach at H.D. Woodson High School, who's in big trouble these days.

On the other hand, it's also possible that he is a man who's about to serve as a role model in a whole different sense of the term. He may be a scofflaw coach who, after being caught with an ineligible player for the fifth time in 10 years, is about to get his comeuppance.

Yesterday, his undefeated Woodson team forfeited 10 victories (because of an overage player) and also got kicked out of the Interhigh title game on Thanksgiving. Any day, he could be suspended from coaching for one to five years by the assistant D.C. superintendent of schools. He might even be fired.

Headen has repeatedly run afoul of the kind of eligibility rules that are vital to maintaining order in a sports league, yet which are perhaps tangential in the larger picture of society. Now, he's down to his last strike. Only this time, it's possible -- the feeling here is it's probable -- that he didn't do anything wrong. But circumstances, and his reputation, might sink him.

"It's a helluva decision," said Sam Jones, the Interhigh athletic director who ordered the games forfeited. "I've known Bob and his wife a long time. And I've known football and {girls} basketball players he's sent to college. It's tough. Tougher than anything I ever had to do with the {Boston} Celtics."

Hopefully, the superintendent's office will insist that Headen's culpability be proven beyond a reasonable doubt -- his past record not withstanding -- and that he be given the benefit of the doubt. If the phrases "burden of proof" and "extenuating circumstances" ever applied, it's now.

In a sense, Headen is like the police precinct captain with a gang war on his doorstep who gets busted by headquarters because he hasn't filled out all his paperwork properly. In fact, his character bears a strong resemblance to the guy Clint Eastwood plays in every Dirty Harry movie. For 27 years, Headen has been saying, "Make my day," to the forces of anarchy in his schools.

Back in the '70s, he could have done what many successful coaches do -- escape to the college ranks. But he stayed. He's graying and getting a gut. But he still stays. He used to field 60 players. Now his whole squad is 32. Yet, in a league that has deteriorated inexorably for 25 years, his football program is still the model. That's to say, much of Woodson's field has grass, everybody has a helmet and, yesterday, the marching band -- well, seven students with four instruments -- was practicing diligently at midfield.

Headen's adult life has been spent in the front lines of our national battle to save inner-city teenagers from poverty, illiteracy, crime and drugs. On the other hand, he is often inflexible, sometimes makes special rules for himself and cares more about his goals -- like helping 150 former Woodson students get athletic scholarships to college -- than pleasing his bosses. Oh yes, he also loves to win games.

To understand how he got himself into this mess, you have to visualize him. He's a big, stern disciplinarian. When you meet him, you don't smile. You just make sure you aren't doing anything to make him unhappy. There's enough occasional humor in him to prove he isn't in the job just to give orders. But there's also a perpetual thundercloud in that face. Bobby Knight is a fake hard guy compared to Headen.

When you do what Headen does and where he does it, being a man with rough edges can help. He doesn't recruit against other coaches. He recruits against the streets, against the crack dealers, against the colossal inertia, melancholy and depressive anger of a city that in the last 20 years has lost interest in sports as one of its major weapons against decay and delinquency in its struggling school system.

Since the 1960s Interhigh crowds have shrunk, bands and booster clubs disappeared and parental involvement almost disintegrated. Athletic budgets haven't kept up with inflation, and fewer and fewer students have chosen the discipline of sports over the distractions of the street. Yet at a school where, as of yesterday, two letters in the school's name had been stolen from above the front door, Headen still cares.

But he also has a problem. Here it is, as best as can be determined from sources on both sides of the issue:

Anthony Satterthwaite, 5 feet 10 and 280 pounds, is an adequate defensive lineman. This summer, he gave Headen a birth certificate that showed his year of birth as 197- (without the last digit). Headen said: "This won't do." So, Satterthwaite did not play in Woodson's first game. Next, Satterthwaite went to an assistant principal, rather than Headen, with another birth certificate. The administrator called Headen to tell him Satterthwaite appeared eligible. "That won't do either," said Headen, who knows how thin the ice under his feet is.

Headen's teams had to forfeit two games in 1980, four in '84 and three in '88 because of ineligible players -- most notably the voluminous World Smith, now of Grambling. Some call those violations petty. For instance, Headen let a player perform after passing a summer school class in Maryland, rather than D.C. as required in the Interhigh. (That rule was later changed.) Still, Headen has a rep. His girls team once forfeited several games. And he was suspended from coaching from November 1988 to June 1989.

Next, Woodson's assistant principal called Claude Moten -- the assistant to Jones for the Interhigh -- to get a ruling. The league "certified" Satterthwaite and Headen played him. Then, last week, Eastern High got wind of Satterthwaite's real age and saw a way to protest and get itself into the Thanksgiving Day game through the back door. (Eastern was well within its rights. But you wonder how good they should feel about what they've set in motion.)

Headen and Woodson's principal checked the permanent record file -- as they could have done much earlier -- and discovered the truth. With enough digging in those files, could Headen have gotten the facts in September, not November? Well, sure. But how much work is Headen supposed to do for his coaching stipend of $2,000 a year? Yes, $2,000. Is that even a dollar an hour?

"None of this was done in the dark," said Headen's lawyer, Ben Wilson. "Bob went through channels at every point. The Interhigh even gave him a ruling. Now, Sam Jones says, 'Our job is to certify, not to verify.' Those two words aren't all that different. . . . I hope nobody's looking for a scapegoat. . . . The questions is: Did Headen willingly and knowingly violate a rule. There's no evidence of it. It's a big jump from 'stupidly' to 'knowingly.'

"Bob Headen is working where many of us ought to be and aren't," said Wilson, whose father is president of Norfolk State University. "Go ahead, take the games. But don't take Bob."

If you can prove Headen did it on purpose, fire him. A man like that has a problem. But if you can't, leave him alone. Because he's also part of the solution.