A few weeks into his sophomore year, Julio Villatoro found a personal check lying on the floor in a hallway at Annandale. An administrator told him to deliver it to Dick Adams, the Atoms' football coach.

Villatoro went to the weight room and handed the check to Adams, who quickly appraised Villatoro's size -- he is now 6 foot 3 and 290 pounds -- and asked a question Villatoro said changed his life.

"Coach Adams asked me if I wanted to play football, but I didn't understand what he was saying," recalled Villatoro, who had emigrated with his family from El Salvador less than two years earlier and spoke virtually no English. "I don't know why, but I said, 'Yes.' "

"When I first got here, I didn't speak a word of English," Villatoro said. "But I learned from talking to my teammates, from the great teachers at Annandale and from watching cartoons. . . . Before I met Coach Adams, football for me, it was soccer."

In the four years since that brief conversation, Villatoro, a senior who starts at nose guard and offensive tackle, has become fluent in English, transformed himself into one of the area's best football players, and become a top student, with a 3.5 grade-point average.

Tonight, Villatoro (35 tackles, 3 for loss) leads Annandale (3-1, 1-0 AAA Patriot) against West Springfield (3-1, 1-0) in a game that could have a big impact on the Division 6 Northern Region playoffs. Annandale already has one big victory -- the Atoms defeated area powerhouse Centreville, 31-27, for the second consecutive year on Sept. 20 -- and could bolster its postseason hopes if Villatoro can rein in West Springfield running back Jason Langley.

"We got a lot of power points by beating Centreville," said Villatoro, who is being recruited by several Division I-AA and I-A programs, including Towson, Georgetown, Richmond and Ohio University. "But we know we have to keep winning."

Centreville Coach Mike Skinner said: "He's the biggest reason they've beaten us the past two years. We weren't able to run the ball on him. He's very athletic for his size, a tough kid, and he makes everyone else on their defense that much better."

Villatoro said he is determined to win a championship this fall, for himself and his teammates, but especially for Adams. Villatoro, 18, has been a student at Annandale for five years but, thanks to Adams and others who intervened on his behalf, he was granted an athletic participation waiver from the Virginia High School League in March, which allowed him to play this year. He received the waiver, Athletic Director Angelo Hilios said, because he took only ESL classes his first year and did not play sports.

"Julio has overcome so much, and he deserves most of the credit," Adams said. "In just a few years, he's learned English, become an outstanding student and a great football player. He's worked hard for it."

Directions: Take Beltway Exit 52B, Annandale, to Route 236; turn right on Heritage Drive; turn left on Four Year Run; follow to 4700 Medford Drive, which dead-ends at the school.

Julio Villatoro emigrated from El Salvador with his family five years ago. "Before I met [Annandale] Coach Adams," he said, "football for me, it was soccer."