Softly: ""Give the girl a chance to kick a point."" That's close-mouthed, tight-lipped John Earlingham, now, after 36 auspicious years, in his last season as head coach of the Higgins High Hornets. Coach John Earlingham, whose best-ever team is unstrung by the furor over pony-tailed place-kicker Kathy Denver--too good to turn away, too serious not to gain his respect. In some of the best football play since Nelson Hutto, the boys come back--for Kathy, who's blameless (and wants to quit), for the coach, for their own self-esteem. It's a psychologically nuanced story that calls the signals clearly but doesn't force the issues: a fragile girl on a team is a problem, a concern to her teammates and a deterrent--or challenge--to the other side. And, in due course, the opposing Panthers' strategy--""Don't smash into the girl; do smash into the holder""--misfires, and in the melee Kathy is injured, in effect solving the problem: she'll be out the rest of the season. For her courage, Coach Earlingham awards her a football letter, and he bends still further to sign her cast. The rub is not the solution--reasonable in context, and true to character--but the inescapable fact that this is not Kathy's story or the other kids' but the coach's. You know it on page one, however--and if youngsters will read about a real-life Vince Lombardi, why not a lifelike counterpart who (says one of his old grads) ""was that way before anybody ever heard of Vince Lombardi.