What can you say about a college football career that, spread over five years, amounted to no more than 20 minutes of game action but also happened to coincide with a period of turbulence perhaps unprecedented in sport?

It's a career that will end Saturday in a bowl game in Shreveport, La., almost the way it began, full of hope but with nothing firm in sight. For Kevin Pompey of the University of Maryland, it's been a heck of a ride.

Like all but a tiny percentage of college football players, Pompey's experience in big-time sports was nowhere near what he'd hoped for.

Growing up, he once played against Penn State all-American Blair Thomas, a No. 1 pro draft choice. But Pompey was not one for grand dreams in high school.

"I hadn't imagined going on to the NFL" as Thomas has done, with the New York Jets, he said. "I just wanted a decent college career."

That meant stepping out of the Catholic League in Philadelphia and starting a season or so for teams seemingly destined to remain routinely powerful in the Atlantic Coast Conference. At the end of his senior high school season, 1985, Maryland had won 22 of its last 24 league games and had been to four straight bowl games.

No way could Pompey have thought that the coach who sat in his living room and convinced him to attend Maryland, Bobby Ross, would leave College Park almost exactly a year later. Or that during many of his initial steps on campus Pompey would be hounded for reaction to the cocaine-induced death of a former basketball player he'd never met, Len Bias.

"Life can never be as trying," he said, "as being 18 years old and having to deal with what my class had to."

Others in his class, among them quarterback Scott Zolak and wide receiver Barry Johnson, could compensate for that with extended periods of playing time and decent doses of glory. Mostly, Pompey's action on the field would be limited to hectic seconds.

Underappreciated about football is its sense of urgency. Over four years of eligibility, there are only 44 regular season chances for a player to have fun. Absolutely no one has ever enjoyed practice.

And although it is a 60-minute game that often consumes three hours, the actual snap-to-tackle football play rarely lasts longer than 15 seconds. That's why an episode of "The Simpsons" has more total time than Pompey accumulated at Maryland.

"It takes maybe six seconds for a punt," he said. "Snap the ball . . . boom . . . tackle and it's over. The average game you'll punt three or four times. Maybe 24 seconds in all."

And so on with punt returns and both kickoff teams. Plus two starting assignments, midway through this season. Living on an injury-risk edge and for moments, however infrequent, when the public address system informs tens of thousands of fans after a kick-coverage collision: "Tackle by Kevin Pompey."

That's after Pompey actually got on the field during games -- three years late and via a route that included an extended stopover in Kansas and his having to pay for hitting and being hit when he returned to Maryland.

Pompey was redshirted his freshman season, which he expected. He also was moved from his high school position, wide receiver, to defensive back, which he had hoped to avoid. He was totally surprised when Ross quit a few days after the final game.

"I found out about it from the cab driver who took me from the train station back to campus {after a trip home}," Pompey said. "Yes, there was some feeling of betrayal {among the last players Ross had recruited}. We were young and confused. We all realize now he had to do what he had to do. It was a business decision."Roundabout Route to Two Starts

The first serious talk with new coach Joe Krivak was when Pompey also left Maryland, after completing his first spring practice. The reason: "personal responsibilities" back home he eventually did not have to shoulder.

Over the next two years, Pompey spent football seasons at Fort Scott Junior College in Kansas and time out of school working while living at home. He never played a down at Fort Scott, arriving too late his first year and choosing not to play his second after mistakenly being told he would have to sacrifice a year of big-time eligibility if he did.

Back at Maryland in the spring of 1989, Pompey learned he would have to earn back his scholarship. He paid his way last season but, working almost entirely on special teams, regained his financial aid for this season.

Whether it was the layoff or other players having more experience or simply being superior, Pompey has started just twice. That was against North Carolina State and Michigan this season; injuries at strong safety caused the promotion.

"So much pressure," he said of his feeling before the N.C. State game. "Only a few games left in my career and I hadn't been in this position since my senior year in high school. You don't forget how to play, but the pressure's so bad.

"At this level, you only get good with repetition -- in front of 30,000 screaming people and it's third and three and you're down by a touchdown and trying to stop a drive. That's the way to get better quick. Grow up."

Pompey started the next week, at Michigan, and said he was playing all right until he suffered a shoulder injury making a tackle early in the third quarter.

As a starter and backup, Pompey estimates he has been involved in 40 or so defensive plays. Regulars get that much action in one full game, he estimates.

"Coach always tells us to be ready, because you never know when your number will be called," Pompey said, still aglow over the final time his was.The Magic Moment Arrives

What he thought was the final moment of his career became the most stunning: the last defensive play against Virginia, fourth down, the game, a winning season, a coach's job on the line. And Pompey on the field.

"It was nickel coverage," he said, "with me doubling Herman Moore" -- Virginia's tall and wonderfully gifted all-American wide receiver.

He laughed.

"Only thing was, I lined up wrong -- on the other side of the field. Mike Thomas yelled: 'Oh, no. Kevin! Herman's over there!' "

The words had barely passed Thomas's lips when Moore suddenly moved in motion -- toward where Pompey was starting to shake in his shoes. They were matched together after all, a factor that became moot when Virginia quarterback Shawn Moore couldn't get the pass off.

Pompey was close to dumbstruck over his sudden turn of fortune. Here he was, at last, part of some magnificent Maryland heroics.

"I did a dance in the end zone," he said. "Threw my hands in the air. Almost felt like crying I was so happy. Guess the Lord was looking over my shoulder."

That unexpected victory produced an encore game, in the Independence Bowl Saturday against a Louisiana Tech team that includes a former roommate at Fort Scott, reserve quarterback Sean Fisher.

In terms of bowls, Maryland is at the modest level it was when Pompey and his class were being recruited. On the decline, the Terrapins after the 1985 season played in the Cherry Bowl. The Independence marks their first bowl since.

Of his fling with football here, Pompey said: "I learned a lot and I wouldn't trade that for anything. I might even miss the practices some. To have a winning season and help the school return to a bowl means a lot.

"I had expectations; I don't have any bitterness. Why didn't things go the way I'd hoped? I blame myself. That's how I am. Don't point any fingers. My class has seen some people take some knocks. But no matter how low you'd be, someone in the locker room would liven things up, say: 'It ain't so bad. It ain't so bad.' "