In the center table at Mel Krupin's restaurant, right at the bottom of the stairs so that he can see and shout at everyone he knows who walks in, hunched over a bowl of chicken consomme' vermicelli and wearing a necktie on which are embroidered the names of his grandchildren, Howard Cosell is in his element. But then, Howard Cosell carries his element around with him. He is an element. He is an American classic.

"Sonny Jurgensen!" he shouts suddenly, looking up from the chicken soup and spotting the former Redskins quarterback ambling down the stairs. "Sonny Jurgensen was the worst quarterback I ever saw! The absolute most overrated nothing, from the very beginning! I gotta sit in the stands and watch you introduced as a Hall-of-Famer? That's the worst thing I ever saw in my life!"

"Hello, Howard," says Sonny.

Surely everyone in the restaurant can hear this, or at least discern a commotion, but since it's Howard Cosell, nobody looks in the least surprised or distressed. Nobody thinks a maniac has gotten loose. Howard's just doing his thing. This we allow him, this we expect of him. Here on the planet Earth, some people spend their lives sitting and waiting and hoping that a grand piano doesn't fall on their heads from a seventh-story window; other people cause commotions. A commotion is a great defense. Howard Cosell is well defended.

Howard Cosell is a study in perpetual commotion. Beneath that commotion, which serves to protect it, there is a gentle sweet soul. Earlier this summer, in Israel, ground was broken for the Howard Cosell Center for Physical Education on the campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Cosell will fly there for the dedication next spring. And in a Sports Illustrated cover story out today, Frank DeCosell that "He is sports in our time" and notes, "In the most imitative of businesses, he hasn't met his matcassed."

His critics should be ashamed of themselves.

After Jurgensen has been seated at a table, Cosell wning and says of him, almost in a whisper now, "He's a decent fella"--high praise from Howard, who tends to git. He should get more. People complain, they carp, they grump, they grumble, they throw things at the TV screenday Night Football season, and Johnny Carson makes his wee little jokes, but Cosell, at 63, remains the pictuability.

A one-time lawyer, a Phi Beta Kappa, a verbal hoofer of ineffable perspicacious intrepidity, Howarlossus beneath whom the hollow men, the soft men, peep and putter about. Imagine the last two decades or so oferage without him--unthinkable. It would have been mostly Ken dolls in blazers. Howard is the single greatest none Arledge ever visited upon broadcast sports.

He is The Key Figure.

For all his bombast and the bravadng very seriously grand about the guy. When the wind blew off his hairpiece at the Kentucky Derby, Howard Cose noble six hundred kept charging into the Valley of Death. His not to reason why, although he does reason why "You know what the major problem with television is in this country?" Cosell asks rhetorically, out of almosvision's problem. The problem is the lowness of the mass intelligence quotient. What do you do? How do you brit's a major problem!"

And now, back to the soup.

During baseball season, Cosell is usually relatively qull--but he has his new weekly Saturday-afternoon ABC magazine show, "Sportsbeat," to occupy him now, and he lovt to be his legacy," says a coworker. Despite erratic clearances from ABC affiliates (including sleepy WJLA-TVat" has proven itself a first-rate sports broadcast, one that Cosell claims scoops newspaper sports sections regularly.

Cosell brings tremendous, almost frightening, energy to tasks like this, but one must venture to pose the importunate query: Is the champion thinking about stepping down, about possible retirement? "My wife and I talk about it every day," Cosell says. "We're both convinced that if I just retired, I'd dry up." Where would he go if he did retire? "Isn't it funny, that's been the subject of conversation in my home for the last five days."

No answers. But he says, "I am having fun with my 'Sportsbeat.' It's the only valid, important sports show ever on television in my life. I believe that; at least, that's my conviction." One asks what's actually left for Cosell to do. "If Roone wants to make 'World News Tonight' work, let him call me up and I'll anchor it," Cosell sayntly in all seriousness. "I'll face the usual s--- from some of your colleagues about 'show business' and the But that is now finished. A dead issue in this country.

"I did want to do it when Roone got news ABC Newswas already president of ABC Sports , I'll not lie to you. Now? I don't know. My problem's within myself now ae do I want to do? I'm in a very intellectually restricted medium. Maybe I became so important in my field, inetter contribution than I could have made any other way. Maybe that's a rationalization--something that Emmie at. If I went to NBC, which is desperate, I'd still go there as 'a sports guy.' "

Although his wife's name ilong called her "Emmie" (for the initials M.E.). Next year they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.ldren's names EMBROIDERED ON HIS TIE!!! Did I mention that?

Cosell considers himself trapped in sports, a fcally unworthy of him. When his guest at lunch says, "I'm not the greatest sports fan in the world," Cosell saither am I." On the air now, he is starting to look not old, but older. The grayed temples, the fried-egg eyeslight waver in the musical punching-bag voice--how does the man do it? How does he keep going? When he does retire, he will retire undefeated. There is no number one contender.

How much more Cosell will do depends on other things besides his moods and the muse, though he will definitely play a pivotal role in ABC's coverage of the 1984 Olympics. Close viewers of his may have noticed, in appearances over the last several months, a trembling in his hands that makes him look ill, perhaps seriously. But asked about his health, Cosell says "It's spectacular." The occasional trembling is, he says, something that occurs when he is "fatigued" and is not a symptom of a disease.

"That's part of my family h," he says. "That's absolutely nothing. I just had a complete physical check-up and I've never been in better . Some people would like it to be bad. That's par for the course. That's part of the game."

The people who beat" do not worry about Howard's health; they worry about their own. The man is a hurricane who blows lesser very morning at 5 o'clock running around like a madman," says Pete Bonventre, field reporter for the show and at the now demised "Inside Sports" magazine.

"Howard is a one-man newsroom. Anything that happens in sport before anyone else," Bonventre says. "That's always invigorating. It's better than having your own UPI wire in your office. He jumps on every story the minute it happens, whether we're going to cover it on the show or not."

Lunch at Mel's with Howard took place on a day that Cosell had come to Washington to testify before a House subcommittee considering federal regulation of boxing. Earlier, Cosell had announced, on the air, that he would no longer do ringside work at boxing matches. In a 20-minute speech that he ad-libbed, he told the subcommittee that "this quagmire, this mess, that is professional boxing today" is "a desperately sick sport" that has shown resistance to reform for "decade upon decade," ande Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill to make his case.

"I think what I did was exactly right," Cosell says lamittee started off with a vigorous defense of boxing. His name was Rep. Donald L. Ritter R-Pa. ; he's the cLarry Holmes' district. I must say, I handled him very deftly and with total ease."

By this time Howard has soup to London broil, and he can't let Sonny and his friends just sit over there at a nearby table and eat ino loudly that Jurgensen has to hear him, "I am so sick and tired of these imbeciles in this town not appreciating Jurgensen! The man's too big for this town! You wanna go back to Duke, Sonny?"

Jurgensen looks up and smiles. He is not going to go to any mats with Mr. Mouth.

"You know, you age very well," Cosell tells him. "I've never seen a man maintain the sexual dynamism you have."

"Well," says Sonny, "good clean living, self-denial . . ."

But now another victim looms down the stairway, sports columnist Morrie Siegel. Cosell pipes right up again: "Th Mo Siegel is the worst son of a b----!" Then he spies ABC News Washington bureau chief Ed Fouhy, who had receNews. To him, Cosell shouts, "Ed, I liked your statement, when you said, 'I won't work for Arledge and he's fur of laughter. From Howard. Then he says quietly, in his trademark urgent murmur, "He'll worry the rest of the the office and try to reach Arledge. Arledge won't be there to answer the phone." Howard does everything but s together in glee. Give the guy a break; he is trying to keep himself interested in life. And succeeding magnificently.

When you have Howard Cosell around, you feel compelled to ask him his opinions, because he will So there follows, just about the time he lights a cigar so long it should probably have a pine tar test, a round of Cosell on Almost Everybody.

Pete Axthelm of NBC Sports: "I think he's a tragedy. A lower-case Jimmy the Greek. He's a helluva writer, but Pete Axthelm should not be on the air. He's not air-worthy."

The PBS "Frontline" expose' of the NFL: "A piece of garbage."

David Hartman of "Good Morning America": "Sonny Werblin, who is a show buness genius, said to me recently that the two brightest people in the context of the American audience on telertman and Jim Jensen a local newscaster in New York . He said, 'Hartman is so stupid, so neighborly, he makes everyone in America feel safe in the morning.' There's no question in my mind Werblin's exactly right. David's like Lawrence Welk in the early hours."

Local TV sports in America: "A disgrace."

Roone Arledge: "He's been spoiled through the years, given accolades probably nobody in the world deserves."

Warner Wolf, the former Washington sportcaster now at the CBS-owned station in New York: "As a journalist, he's non-existent; I don't take him seriously. But I give full credit to a fella who can be ripped apart every day by newspaper people but does a gimmicky thing that appeals to the public and makes three or four hundred thousand dollars a year doing it. And I enjoy that. I like him very much as a person."

Then Cosell wanders into a story about one of the uncovered events at t 21st Olympics in Montreal, when Wolf worked briefly and unhappily for ABC. "We were with Warner and some other ABC people at the Chateau Champlain, having dinner," Cosell says. "In walked a hooker. She sat down with us, and I started to pu I said to her, 'This is the man who wants you.' His wife had just gone home a day or two earlier. We gave the w0130 ----- r e BC-08/04/83-COSELL 3rdadd w0130 08-04 0001 room number. I gave Warner a lift home. I don't know what at."

Let's go to New York, so Wolf can make a stab at clearing this up. "First of all, I gave him the lift istinctly," Wolf says. "If he gave the hooker my room number, she didn't use it, because I swear on the Bible in." Wolf says darkly he thinks she went "elsewhere." No, not to Howard's room. "One hundred times I've heard this story from Howard," Wolf says. "I t told it so many times, he thinks it's true."

Now let's go back to Howard for another version of the--no, les burning brightly now, and so is Howard. He had recently gone before the cameras not for a sportscast but as len film "Broadway Danny Rose," the one to be released after the current "Zelig." Cosell says he and Allen go igh School in Brooklyn--not that they were classmates, but it's their mutual alma mater.

"Woody and I have gell. "He is a rabid sports fan, a rabid boxing fan as well. When I went over to the Waldorf for the filming, he said to me, 'As much as I love Ali, Howard, you're right about boxing.' Woody's great--except for going to that terrible Elaine's every night."

Coyed himself in Allen's "Bananas" (typecasting, but a consummate performance), but in Allen's "Sleeper," set in the next century, people look at a film of Howard Cosell talking on TV and try to figure out what fis had for their ancestors. They decide it must have been some form of torture.

That was not Woody Allen tall says, just Woody Allen "having fun." Cosell sometimes pretends to have no sense of humor about himself, but in fact, he has a rich one. Also, a sense that the world is mad. And getting madder all the time. "George Steinbrenner sent my wife two decorator pillows," Cosell says. "One said, 'Oh Lord, give me a bastard with talent.' And the other said, 'Living well is the best revenge.' I kind of like those. My wife loves them."

A long puff of the great cigar. Krupin, the owner of the restaurant, pays a the table. Cosell says to him, "----ing food was awful," having enjoyed it noisily up to that time, and not mue. In the bright midday sun, heading for his limousine, Howard Cosell looks fit and satisfied and irreverently.

"I'm in the December of my years," he had said reflectively. But if he retires, he'll be leaving the field to all the lesser men, the little men, the peepers and the putterers; doesn't that worry him a litou can only do so much," he says grandly. Cosell is not part of an era; he is an era. When that era ends, bad look smaller-than-life; Howard is bigger. For a shark, to eat is to live. For Howard, to talk is to live. And to work is to live. We must keep this man talking.