Through the wonders of video technology, Joe Theismann recently received a package containing videocassettes of his playing days at South River High School in New Jersey when he was the school's 132-pound quarterback.

"It was the day before yesterday that I got them," Theismann said. "Looking at me now, I don't know why anybody would have offered me a scholarship. I certainly wouldn't have offered me a scholarship to go anywhere. I couldn't stay in the pocket at all."

Really, it didn't matter. Theismann watched the images and it warmed him more than any video of him all grown up leading the Redskins over the Dolphins or 49ers. It reminded him of a time when he lived two blocks from the practice field, too far to drive his red '63 Volkswagen, which he drove anyway. It reminded him of a time before agents and endorsements, before news conferences and renegotiations and Rocket Screen. It reminded him of an experience that is truly once in a lifetime.

Theismann had a message for all the kids in Maryland and Virginia who may be playing in their "Big Game" this weekend in the state finals or semifinals. "I'm a very lucky man," Theismann said. "We didn't have state championships when I was in high school {the late 1960s}, but my team {which also included Drew Pearson} was 9-0 and we played New Brunswick at Rutgers Stadium.

"We beat them, 21-0. I remember kneeling down at the 50-yard line, saying a prayer and crying. I thought at the time that nothing could be better than that."

Over the years, Theismann came close to winning the Heisman Trophy, won a Super Bowl championship and appeared in another. Still, those feats have a hard time matching up favorably with what happened in South River.

"It's a personal memory," he said. "I've been to the top of the mountain in this profession. I had a heralded college career, a heralded pro career. But the memories you take from high school with you, of those big moments, you relive them forever.

"Those kids in Maryland and Virginia playing in the playoffs this weekend, they owe it to themselves to make the best personal memories possible. I know what they're going through tonight. I slept better as a pro quarterback than a 138-pound quarterback at South River."

The players from undefeated Wootton and undefeated Randallstown did plenty of tossing and turning last night in anticipation of today's Maryland State Class 4A final, as did the players from Hampton and Annandale, who play in a Virginia AAA semifinal.

Bob Hampton, coach at Wootton, is especially proud of this team, not just because it won 12 games, but because he can sense this group isn't so caught up in the game it can't appreciate what it will mean later, when somebody else sends a videotape of a game long ago.

When a coach tells his players, "You'll be carrying this with you for the rest of your life," as Hampton told his Wootton players, most of them return a perplexed look. For every James Milliner (the Annandale running back) who goes on to play college football, 40 will never put on pads again.

When I helped my high school tennis team win a title the morning after the senior prom in 1976, I thought that was just the beginning of so many more great athletic moments to come. Instead, it was the last.

Hampton, who played his high school football at West Allegheny High in Imperial, Pa., lost his last game. "It was against Fort Cherry from McDonald, Pennsylvania," Hampton said. "We lost by a point -- maybe it was two -- and they had a tackle who became a head coach. Name is Marty Schottenheimer."

On that day, though, Hampton was Schottenheimer's football equal. That's the thing about high school.

"It's where you get to be the big fish," Theismann said. "With the Redskins, or any professional team, there are always others who are as big or bigger than you. In the high school environment, it's your school, your family, your friends. And when you win something, that mountain is as high as any pinnacle for those kids."

Theismann doesn't go back to South River much anymore, but many of his pals still live there. Now that film can be converted to videocassette, one of the boys will pop a tape into the VCR and there they are, 25 years later.

"There'll be a dozen or so of them," Theismann said, "watching this thing with beer and pretzels. And our head coach comes in and chews them out. I mean cuts them up like the game just happened yesterday. Somebody will finally say, 'Hey, Ron, we don't have to take this stuff. We're grown men now!' "