Joe Namath, Sonny Jurgensen, O.J. Simpson, Frank Gifford. Their faces are regulars on the TV screen, personifications of big money in new careers. It's hard to believe that other ex-professional football players might have a hard time finding a new job.

It comes as no surprise to David Knight of Alexandria.

The former William & Mary star chased fame and fortune for five years as a wide receiver for the N.Y. Jets, until one day in 1978 management told him they didn't need him anymore. From an idol, to the unemployed, overnight. h

"I wasn't prepared," says Knight, "for that eventuality -- even though it was on the horizon (because of a knee in jury). It happened so quickly."

Unlike the superstars, he didn't get the Madison Avenue calls for TV ads and product endorsements. The sudden job loss sent him scrambling, not only for a new job, but also for an entirely new career.

In his search, he ran up against the same problems -- and others unique to ex-athletes -- encountered by mid-life career-changers in any field. His experiences, and those of other former pros, have spurred the pro-football profession to join other businesses in offering employes (in this case the players) career counseling.

"Most ball players don't have the inclination to start at the bottom" in a new profession, says Knight, "so I spent two years looking for jobs I thought might be interesting."

Although he was highly skilled at catching passes, he found that ability "didn't translate into a viable job."

As a player he "figured my contacts were going to see me through." But as a job-hunter he learned "contacts have a responsibility. They can't bring a clown on just because he's a football player."

About the common belief that doors open easily for the gridiron hero, Knight says, "That's more for curiosity, to see what you look like."

Employers want to know "What specific skill can you offer me?" If "all you can offer is 'I can catch the hell out of a football' that doesn't go far."

Even a business degree didn't protect Knight from an "incredibly insulting" interview with one businessman who demanded to know how he expected to get a good job in the corporation with only the skills listed on his resume. t

"That woke me up," says Knight, who during this period taught English part time at Lee High School in Fairfax County. He decided to enroll in the graduate school at Catholic University to learn a new career: library science.

"At 29, I'm starting from scratch."

Contrasting his current part-time job in the Justice Department library with the $35,000 to $40,000 he made with the Jets, Knight says, "Now I'm talking $150 paychecks over two weeks."

As a pro player, he says, "You just don't see the day when you're not gonna make big paper doing what you want to do."

After hearing stories such as Knight's, the National Football League Players Association last year joined with the NFL Management Council to offer career-planning workshops to players across the country. This year's two-day sessions are being held in eight cities.

Mark Murphy is one Redskin who signed up for the recent Washington session. "You've got to think about your future," says the safety who in the off-season is studying for a master's degree in business administration at American University. He's hoping for a management position in business when he's no longer a part of the team.

"We hope to open the player's eyes," says former Redskin Brig Owens, now assistant to the executive director of the players association, by having them get "serious experience" (before they leave the game), instead of being "just decoration for a company."

When an athlete "comes out of college," says Owens, "he's doing what he's dreamed about. He can be blinded by the fact he won't be playing for the rest of his life." The average career span for a pro player is only 4 1/2 years. The average salary is $68,000, considerably more than they can expect to earn in a new job.

Owens, who spent 12 years with the Washington team before retiring in 1978, says in his rookie year "I saw guys crying and dejected when they were being released." To avoid finding himself in the same predicament, he decided "out of fear" to work every off-season, mostly in real estate and construction. ""In football, the longer you play, the more your value decreases."

The workshops were designed by Counseling Systems, Inc. of Brinklow, Md., headed by psychologist Zandy B. Leibowitz, who confesses she wouldn't know a football superstar "if he walked in" during one of her sessions.

The workshops, she says, first alert the players to the kinds of financial and psychological problems they face off the gridiron. "It's like having to shop in Sears rather than I. Magnin" is the way one player described it.

Redskin defensive and Dallas Hickman, says Leibowitz, told the session, that he "sometimes measures himself against his peers in college -- they're already extablished in a career while he'll have to start over as a learner."

Hickman is working on his degree at Northern Virginia Community College and has just taken the Virginia real estate exam. "You've got to have something to fall back on."

The exit from pro ball, says Leibowitz, can be particularly stressful for wives. Team members who marry "bring their wives into that glamor and support structure . . . when the guy stops playing, all that support stops."

Former players, such as ex-Redskin Pete Larson, now vice president of commercial leasing for Shannon and Luchs, appear at sessions to relate their tales of "pitfalls and obstacles" in the transition from stadium to office.

"It was beyond belief," recalls Larson, "that they wouldn't pay me $25,000 just to go out and have lunch with people."

The participants are also asked to sort out their values, their interests and their skills. "Security is a value that emerges high," says Leibowitz. "They say they don't have it."

"Some guys," she adds, "want to continue in competitiveness. Others don't want anything to do with it."

So far as skills, she says, most football players have demonstrated they're capable of "perseverance, hard work and discipline," qualities valued in the business world. They may also have practiced public relations and public speaking.

Decision-making, she says, is also emphasized. "Many players have forfeited the opportunity to make career decisions in their lives and have given that control over to others -- wives, coaches or agents."

In the second day of the workshops, participants learn how to research a particular career, how to conduct informational interviews, prepare for job interviews and how to write a resume. They're also encouraged to check into additional schooling and to begin making contacts in the fields they're interested in.

For most of their lives, says Leibowitz, pro players are "very focused on football. Coaches expect them to work out even on the off season. They've developed early as football players and spend all their time training."

The idea of the workshops is to get them thinking seriously about the time when football no longer will be their life.The hope is that they might avoid that frequent lament of retired players: "All I wanted was one more year."