When he was 12, the highlight of every day for Eduardo Lima--and just about every other boy growing up in Sao Paulo, Brazil--was playing neighborhood soccer. Of course, it wasn't quite as much fun to lose, so on the day his team was behind and an opponent kicked the ball onto a nearby roof, Lima rushed to retrieve it.

"We were losing, so instead of walking the roof, I was jumping across it and I fell on the parking lot," said Lima, now George Mason's top soccer player. He suffered multiple injuries, and doctors needed 104 stitches to repair the muscle tissue and skin of his upper left arm. "I almost died because there is a major artery there and I almost lost the feeling in my arm."

Lima, a senior forward, still has a jagged scar on his left triceps, but his arm is fully functional. The scar may be the only visible remnant of the fall, but that experience also left Lima with an ample amount of trust in doctors. He needed to lean on that trust recently, when he had surgery to repair an irregular heartbeat.

"I think maybe the doctor was more nervous than me," before the Aug. 24 heart operation, Lima said. "He started to tell me all the things that can happen and I said, 'Don't worry. Do what you have to do.' "

The surgery went smoothly, and Lima has been cleared to play for George Mason again. He's not yet in game shape and it's uncertain whether he'll play this season, but his presence at practices and games lifts the Patriots, who saw the first clues of Lima's conditions in the spring of 1997.

Then, George Mason Coach Gordon Bradley remembered, Lima had brief, unexplained dizzy spells. That fall, Lima left the field vomiting early in a game against Howard at the University of Maryland tournament.

"The trainers took him to the cooling tent behind the goal and he just kept vomiting," Bradley said. "It was hot--really hot--but he had trained that week without any trouble. That was the first time we thought, 'Something is wrong, and it's not going away.' "

Doctors still are not sure if Lima's bouts with nausea were linked to his heart, but after the Howard game, they began to take a closer look at his overall health.

In April 1998, Lima nearly collapsed again while running on the track inside the George Mason field house, but this time he felt his heart beating wildly. Doctors then discovered Lima's arrhythmia and treated it with medication through his junior season.

Despite his health problems, Lima has led the Patriots in goals each of the past three seasons and has been an all-Colonial Athletic Association selection the last two. He has 35 goals and 20 assists in his career.

The medication seemed to be working until this summer, when Lima felt heart palpitations again. So nearly two weeks ago, doctors at Fairfax Hospital performed cardiac ablation surgery on Lima.

In the procedure, doctors insert a catheter into a vein in the patient's leg and, with the help of video monitors, maneuver it toward the heart tissue that causes arrhythmia. The catheter delivers a burst of radio-frequency energy that alters or destroys that small part of the heart.

"Radio-frequency cardiac ablations began about 10 years ago," Albert del Negro of Fairfax Hospital's Arrhythmia Associates said. "Now they are very common. Fairfax Hospital, the busiest site for this procedure in the mid-Atlantic region, did 320 ablations last year. In most cases it is an outpatient procedure."

George Mason officials helped arrange for Lima's parents, Luis Eduardo and Suely, to travel from Brazil for the surgery. Throughout the process, Lima has remained upbeat.

"When the doctors came and told me there was a chance they might put a pacemaker in me, my girlfriend was shocked, like, 'Oh my goodness, what are we going to do?' " Lima said. "I said, 'Listen, it's only a chance. It didn't happen yet. Don't cry before. Cry after if you have to.' "

It appears she won't have to. Last Tuesday, Lima put on his soccer cleats for the first time in two months and kicked the ball around with his teammates.

"To me it's a miracle what these doctors can do," Bradley said. "To the doctors this is a daily habit, but to us it's incredible."

Doctors will be monitoring his condition closely, but it will take a month before they are certain that the arrhythmia has been corrected completely, Lima said. Over the next two weeks, he plans to test himself in practice. Provided the doctors do not find any lingering problems, he will then decide whether he can get fit in time to play this season. If not, he will consider redshirting, he said.

Lima--who will remain team captain regardless of when or whether he returns, Bradley said--watched as George Mason opened the season with losses to Towson and Duquesne before routing Delaware, 7-1, yesterday.

As much as he wants to help his teammates, Lima plans on taking his time to come back. He learned not to rush when he was 12.

"I'm looking forward to do the best I can. . . . For sure I'm not going to be able to play 90 minutes right away," Lima said. "The most important thing is to see if everything is working well. If it is, then I am going to push myself."

CAPTION: Senior forward Eduardo Lima, George Mason's top scorer for three years, is hoping to return soon.