TAYLORSTOWN, PA. -- A brisk 40 miles southwest of Pittsburgh on two-lane Route 221, nature's million-year handiwork has been left mostly unblemished by the pounding pulse of people. It seems little has changed from one era to the next, from stagecoaches to Ford Broncos.

When Mel Blount first came to Taylorstown, a city of 300, the eyes popped. Perfect place to build a dream, he thought. Though his hard body is like it was carved from concrete, Blount, a former Pittsburgh Steeler and maybe the best cornerback to play the game, always has had a soft spot in his heart for children that need help. Enter sleepy Taylorstown.

He has opened two havens for the children who need him, something even his closest friends thought he would never achieve. The first Mel Blount Youth Home opened in Blount's home town, Vidalia, Ga., in 1983, and last September Blount bought a gorgeous farm for the second home here. For this one he reached deep into his pockets for $450,000 to buy 261 acres of hope from a local farmer facing financial ruin.

The number of children that stay in the Taylorstown home vary, but it is usually no more than eight, whose ages range from 10 to 13. The usually stay for six months. Each has a story to tell. Most either have drug-addicted parents, or friends on drugs, or come from shattered and violent homes. They are baby-faced veterans of the streets. Charles Jones, 11, was caught by police stealing cars.

"I can drive," he said.

They feel the warm sensation of love in Blount's home, as well as the inner fire of black pride. They get A's on their science tests and experience, many for the first time, the stern hand of discipline. The streets have made them cocky but in Blount's home their days begin at 6:30 a.m. The kids call Blount "Mr. Mel." They know you don't mess with Mr. Mel.

For these children, it is the closest thing to utopia they have experienced. They can ride horses and lie on the grass and stare at the stars, free from automatic weapons and 911. It is a second chance the streets refuse to give. Two hundred sixty-one acres of hope.

But mixed within the area's beauty is old-fashioned, man-made hatred and distrust. The Ku Klux Klan and many of Blount's neighbors in parts of Washington County bitterly oppose the home. The Klan feeds on unfounded fear, stuffing racist fliers into hundreds of neighboring mailboxes.

Consider this one: "How long do you think it will be before one of these apes rapes one of your white women or mugs one of your elderly?"

"Like a lot of other places, there are people here that don't accept difference," said Charles Mahoney, a local school official sympathetic to Blount and his cause. And some say the fear of change is directly related to the mostly unchanged surroundings. Locals travel the 172-year-old "S" Bridge, then dine at Donna's Country Kitchen, which has been serving "home-style cookin' " in Taylorstown for more than 40 years.

But Blount has taken the county's best shots and still the home flourishes. No one messes with Mr. Mel, a man so tough he caused the NFL to change its pass coverage rules. And, certainly, no one fools with Mr. Mel's dreams.

"People thought we were bringing in a bunch of black kids that were rapists, murderers . . . that their daughters would be raped. That's the excuse they were using to try and keep us out," he said. "But eventually, the good will always come out. And there is a lot of good here." Back on the Farm "After football, I'll go back to the farm and do the same things I did in high school. I can just dream about the life I'm going to live. Get up early and saddle my horse, ride across the field and see my cattle . . . watch my horse run across the meadow."

Mel Blount is a country boy at heart, down to the thick leather boots, faded blue jeans and a ten-gallon hat right out of "High Noon." He also is a powerful country boy, 6 feet 3 inches, a tightly wound mass of muscle. The body that helped him become the Steelers' all-time interception leader (57) is quite intact at age 42. He missed only two of 219 career games, played in four Super Bowls, and eventually stomped his way into the Hall of Fame on Aug. 5, 1989.

He is busy now saddling one of the quarter-horses in a six-stall barn while five of his kids -- and they are his kids -- move in a flurry of brooms and buckets, cleaning and feeding the horses. A request from Blount is always followed by a "Yes, sir."

The youth home is an idea out of the "I" generation -- if I don't help who will? The home works like this: Courts from some of the surrounding counties, such as Washington and Allegheny, send children to the home at different times throughout the year. It's a fair swap: The counties pay for the children's lodging, counseling, food and clothes; Blount takes them off the streets and out of the clogged juvenile court system.

They stay half the year, then go back to the courts and the courts decide if their home situation has stabilized. If it hasn't, they always can come back to Blount.

"Some of the families want them, some of them don't," said Carol Lockett, an executive director at the home.

"His philosophy and approach are different," said Jim Henry, director of Children and Youth Services for Washington County, one of the county agencies that sends children to the home. "He's very disciplined and wants the kids to be that way. It's new. I can't pass judgment positively or negatively yet. But I think there is no question that they change for the better. The question is, how long?"

Ronnie Paith, 10 years old but with the savvy of a teenager, is well known throughout the Washington, Pa., area by, among others, the sheriff. With deep brown eyes and soft voice, Paith doesn't look like a onetime bicycle thief. But that's what he was, and that's what he hopes to change.

"Mr. Mel makes sure no one hurts us and he wants us to change," Paith explained. "He's trying to make sure we change. He's one of the only {people} that really cares."

Jones is a year older than his friend Ronnie. His best trait is that he never lies, the counselors say, and he is unusually tough for a boy so young. It's easy to understand why.

East Liberty, his neighborhood, is one of the most rapidly deteriorating sections of Pittsburgh, complete with a highly sophisticated network of cocaine, heroin and crack dealing. A police spokesman said that in October there were 115 residence burglaries and 27 armed robberies in East Liberty.

"Mr. Mel helps me get away from all the bad stuff going on in my neighborhood," Jones said.

"He takes us places I would never see if I wasn't here. I met the governor. Can you believe that? The governor. Mr. Mel even taught me how to horseback ride. It's nice out here. Mr. Mel is too. He treats us like he's our daddy. If you do something bad, like real bad, then you'll get a spanking. But if you do something just bad, then'll he sit and talk with you. He's nice. He treats us with respect.

"People think I'm lazy just because I'm black. I'm not lazy. I just want the same chance other people get. Mr. Mel is going to help me."

That Jones even has that chance amazes Pittsburgh Steelers President Dan Rooney, who first discussed the idea with Blount when the cornerback was still busting up receivers. As the idea began to materialize, Rooney contacted some Pittsburgh area businesses which eventually contributed about $1 million for the home's expenses. Other money came from Blount's friends, such as former Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert.

"I have to say," Rooney explained, "that when he first talked about it I thought, 'Gee, that's a great thing but it will never happen.' I was very skeptical. But he got things going, and going, and going.

"You can really see the love for the kids. You can tell Blount is going to do some good. Hey, I'm not saying some things aren't going to go awry because I don't know. All I'm saying is that his intentions are excellent.

"We all remember teachers that impressed us and motivated us to higher things. Some listen and some don't. Some forget, some fall down, some get up. The same thing is going to happen to some of these kids. I think they will all be impressed and come out of there better than they were going to be. I'm sure there are going to be some that Mel felt should have done better. The point is, had they not gone there, who knows what would have happened? At least they have a chance."

Pittsburgh City Councilman Duane Darkins said that Blount's farm "is fantastic. I've been there and I've never seen anything like it. How can anyone try and block what he is doing? It's his money and sweat."

The people who tried to stop Blount were a mixture of racist radical and the guy next door. But apparently what they had in common was fear. The first organized resistance to Blount came from the Taylorstown Concerned Citizens Group and the Concerned Citizens of McGuffey School District. Hundreds showed for the permit hearings in the summer and fall of 1989 to voice their concerns, all of which, Blount and others said, stemmed from race.

Some citizens said publicly that they didn't want inner city children in their neighborhood. "I don't relish the idea of waking up and my vehicle being gone," said Charles Keenan, who lives near Blount's home. He added that he did not want Blount's children in the same school with his.

Keenan's wife, Mary Jo, founded the Concerned Citizens of McGuffey School District. The summer before, Buffalo Township zoning supervisor Thomas Wright gave final approval for Blount's home, about 188 acres of which is on the Buffalo Township side. The rest is in Blaine Township.

Mary Jo Keenan said at the time, "I don't think people realize that if the home does get put in, then our lifestyle will change." She had no comment for this article.

"This is just my opinion but I think people were afraid of things that didn't make sense," said Mahoney, an assistant superintendent for the McGuffey School District. Mahoney also said he thought there was no basis for their fears but would not elaborate.

Things quickly got worse. After a meeting to announce the home had been approved, Buffalo Township resident Kimberly McDonough and others placed newspaper stories on automobile windshields about alleged lawsuits against Blount concerning a failed horse deal. Blount said the lawsuits have been settled. Then the Klan got involved.

One morning Blount and his neighbors found leaflets stuffed in their mailboxes signed by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The leaflets compared blacks to primates, described civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist, and encouraged people "tired of your white majority rights being undermined, stepped on and taken away" to contact the Klan.

While the anger directed toward him has somewhat diminished, it is not gone. Derogatory terms recently were painted on a fence in front of the home.

"A bunch of trash wrote that," Blount said. "The Klan is an attitude and that attitude is shared by a lot of people that live around here. It's not just guys in white sheets. It turns out that a lot of these people are hell-raisers. A bunch of ignorant people."

He is very angry now.

"These are good kids that have had some bad breaks, that's all. There are so many of our kids, especially black kids, that don't stand a chance because they don't have any help. Their parents are on drugs, or their parents are separated and both of them have to work. Next thing you know, without any supervision they end up in trouble.

"And don't ever think that {black} kids get a second chance in front of a white judge, white probation officer, or white caseworkers. They are at their mercy. All you have to do is go to some of these detention centers {in Pittsburgh} and you'll see the number of kids . . . that are basically in jail are all black kids. That tells me something right there."

Said Rooney: "Right now Mel has great support from the Pittsburgh community but what I'm saying is that this wasn't immediate support. It was what Mel did and how he handled all that mess. He made a strong statement. A lot of people would have said this isn't worth all the grief. He said, 'We're staying. We're not going to let people run us off.' "

For Jones and the other children, walking onto the farm, which took Blount more than a year to find, was like stepping into someone else's dream.

The 261 acres is mostly rolling hills of golden grass, with a few horse trails through the woods that the children cut themselves. Neighboring houses in the distance look like little toys. It's this spaciousness that allows the children to ride their horses unobstructed and feel a sense of calm. Their partners are the occasional groundhogs that pop their heads up a hole or the deer and fox that peek from behind woods in the southeast section of the property.

"This is good therapy for the kids," Blount said. "It all goes back to a common sense approach. We just give them some direction and put them in an environment where they're not exposed to drugs or the pressures of street life. You can really work with them here, give them Bible study and other things. We treat them like they were our own kids."

Which accounts for the children's splendid living arrangements: Zsa Zsa Gabor wouldn't complain. The log cabin (more are under construction and Blount hopes to have 20 residents by spring) is made of pure northern white pine, and the counselors try to make them as homey as possible. There are two king-size beds in each of the four bedrooms, and the children have daily contests to see who has the cleanest room.

There is a full-size kitchen and dining area, and the group sits down to family-style dinners cooked by the counselors. The basement doubles as a classroom and entertainment area. The children use four IBM personal computers for their classwork. For fun, when they're not playing touch football, time is spent watching the large screen television. The VCR is in full swing on weekends.

A typical day begins at 6:30 a.m., and in 30 minutes they are in the barn to feed the horses. Class begins at 9 and ends at 2, with an hour's break for lunch. School is taught by certified teachers, with the curriculum much like public schools', with possibly one exception.

"You can learn a lot more here because there's more attention to us and you can ask more questions," said William Cargille, 12.

Mike Hull is the head counselor, a body builder with huge biceps and the compassion to match. He's tough with the kids only when he has to be -- like Blount. If they complain when he gives them chores, he gives them more.

"That's the way it was when I was growing up," said Hull, who spent 12 years in a foster home.

Hull had the children show Mr. Mel their science tests, on which they were asked to show the flow of electricity through a battery. Most of them had perfect scores and they encircled Blount to show him. He gave each a hug, and said there was yet more work to be done.

Then, Blount walked outside. Alone.

"I want them to realize that while they are doing well," he said, "they always have to prove themselves. As black folks we always have to prove ourselves again and again."

And, he added, if anyone can enact change here, in territory seemingly frozen in time, it is him. Mr. Mel.