They were sitting in a bar, watching a Monday night National Football League game. Soon, they were arguing.

The old man wanted to talk about Red Grange, Tommy Harmon, Bronco Nagurski and all the great stars of the past. It was sad, he said. Money and greed had ruined pro football. The game already had seen its best players and its best days.

The young man shook his head. "You're living on in the past," he said, putting his Lite beer aside. "Those are wonderful names, great memories. But don't be foolish. They'd be out of place today. This is a different game, a better game. That's just reality."

The old man took a sip of his Bud. "That's the trouble with you, young man. Everything today is always better. But don't tell me I'm wrong about this one. I'm not. These guys today, they are pampered. They get big bucks, everything is done first class for them, it's all but handed to them. In my day, players went both ways. They had to work for their paychecks. And they didn't have much padding or face masks, for that matter.

"I'm talking about toughness. It's one thing to have ability, but it's something else to put that ability to its fullest use. My guys gave everything they had. If they were playing today, they'd outclass these modern-day bums. No question about it."

The young man smiled. He had heard the same nostalgic nonsense before.He admitted that the baseball fan could reminisce -- with good reason-- about the talents of Joe D, the Splendid Splinter, Babe, Willie and the Duke. Pitchers threw just as hard 40 years ago, and balls had to be hit just as far to reach the stands. Sure, there have been changes in baseball, and black players have added a new dimension. But, the young man was willing to concede, Ruth could deal with Koufax or Palmer just as he dealt with Johnson or Hubbell. Maybe even better. He'd certainly earn more money doing it.

"But football is different," the young man said, continuing the argument. "Because baseball's great players can stand up to the rigors of time and athletic advancement, all-time all-star teams in that sport have meaning. They are worth the thought and argument. But compare O. J. Simpson to Grange? What foolishness. Football has greater ability to respond to the body's physical changes than does baseball, which always will depend heavily on contact between bat and ball. Hand and eye coordination hasn't improved that much over time, but it is an accepted point that humans can run faster today, whether or not they are carrying a football. Anyone would be crazy to pick an all-star NFL team that included guys who played prior to 1955 or 1960. Football is macho, up-to-date, modern. The past in football belongs to history books, and that's where it should stay. Just look at some of those old pictures sometimes. Those guys? Starring today?"

No, the old man was wrong.

"Let me put it this way," the young man went on, trying not to yell over the sound coming from the television. "It's just the fact that there have been changes in equipment and playing conditions that strengthens my argument. How good can someone really be when he has to play 60 minutes every week? Isn't it logical to assume that if you only play offense or defense, you'll be a heck of a lot fresher? And wouldn't concentrating on just one position allow you to understand your assignments better, so you could become more proficient?

"The coaching is better too. Techniques have improved, staffs are larger, players get more individual attention. The pros today have been getting good coaching since they were 12. And playing from an early age gives you a chance to really, really develop.

"Nobody had even heard of film study in your day. Do you realize how important it Nevelson, CBis to study film and learn tendencies and discover team weaknesses? It's like being able to sit in when your opponent figures his game plan. For once, sophistication is better. It gives the modern-day player an edge. What you forget is that football no longer is a matter of lining up and hitting someone. That's okay for Hollywood, but that's not reality.

"What's more, don't be too quick to think old-time equipment was something to brag about wearing. The better the equipment, the more protection you have from injury. What sense does it make to expose most of your body to abuse? None at all, I tell you, none at all.

"Today's player can hold up better and perform longer. He's got better medical attention; he's better trained. These guys today train the year round. Football is their fulltime job. Not so before. You'd have to have two jobs. And your players might have started getting ready for the season only when they were forced to."

The old man smiled and gestured for the young man to continue. Then he thought better of it.

"You are telling me that if you took Grange or Harmon and put him in today's uniform with all its fancy padding and let him watch films and all that, he wouldn't benefit from it just like your modern players? Of course he would. They'd have all that desire plus the help you get by being encased in armor and by being fed like a machine. Some manly game, with all that protection. You are just clouding the basic facts with all this fancy talk. I'm not interested in coaching and films and that stuff. What I'm saying, to make it simple for you, is that my players could step in today and hold their own against your players. They'd be stars today, just like they were in the 1930s. Can't make it plainer than that."

The young man could hardly cover up the smirk fast enough. He cleared his voice, and spoke quickly.

"I was wondering when you were going to get around to that argument. That's just my point too. You'd be asking your guys to commmit on-the-field suicide if you let them compete today. I mean, I'm sure they would retain their dignity, but certainly not their reputations.

"Grange and Harmon and those other running backs were shifty and elusive and fun to watch. But they were moving against slowpokes. There wasn't any quickness in the game 40 years ago."

The old man was losing his patience. "No quickness? I remember watching Whizzer White in his prime. There was a runner. How did he get free? With mirrors? There are so many teams nowadays that the quality of the game is diluted. The good players look great because they play against too many mediocre athletes. In my day, the competition was a lot closer. It meant a lot more to be excellent.

"It's unbelievable. Some third-rate quarterback is making $200,000 a year. Baugh was lucky to get $50,000, and he could drill a football through a doughnut's hole at 20 paces. These guys today, they get a little nick and out they come. Can't play. If my players acted like that, they could have played years more and compiled records that would be untouched by your people. And my guys weren't getting help from drugs and pills either."

The young man ignored that low blow. He felt like a star quarterback, in the fourth quarter, ready to unload his best play.

"Just hear me out, that's all I'm asking. Look, let's take some facts. Jim Thorpe was supposed to be a great one, right? Maybe the greatest ever? Okay, now I know what he did in track and field . His best time ever in the 100-yard dash was 10.0. He couldn't put the shot 48 feet. He couldn't break 51 seconds in the 440, and he couldn't leap longer than 23f 6i in the long jump. Today, kids in high school can beat those marks easily, so how do you suppose he would fare on the football field? Thorpe would be too slow and too small to be a standout.

"The Redskins drafted a wide receiver this year. He runs the 100 in 9.4 seconds. He was still around in the fourth round. Fourth round! O. J. Simpson weighNevelson, CBed more than Thorpe and he could run a 100 in 9.3 or 9.4. Jimmy Brown was bigger and stronger than Bronco Nagurski and much, much faster. That's the whole point I'm trying to make. The human body has changed, and nowhere is it more obvious than in football.

"You can't imagine the differences weight lifting has made in this game. Remember when anyone over 220 or 230 was considered big? Look at the rosters today. Running backs are 230. Linebackers are 240. Linemen have to be 250 or 260 to survive. And they have to be all muscle to hold up. Randy White of Dallas weighs 255 and runs a 4.5 40 and could be an Olympic lifter if he tried hard enough. Imagine a Red Grange banging into a 230- pound linebacker who has a body like a young Adonis? Your players relied on natural ability. My players have learned to build on their gifts with a little help from the weights.

'But don't think all those bulging muscles are for show. There's good reason for them. If a player strengthens key parts of his body, especially his neck and shoulders, he can gain protection against injury. He's helped his body's ability to absorb the shock of a tackle or a block. At the the same time, he now is stronger and can deliver a harder blow, whether he is trying to tackle somebody or run by someone with the ball. Teams today are convinced that better conditioned athletes play longer because they have fewer injuries. Their bodies are better prepared for a very physical sport. Studies also have shown that if a player works on making his legs stronger, he can improve his speed. Once, it was considered impossible to become faster after a man reached maturity. But not anymore. Even linemen have found that they are quicker the more their muscle tone expands. Your linemen weren't even big, much less strong.

"Take Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite. Remember Alexander Wojciechowicz? He was their center, a Hall of Famer. He was 5f 11i and 192. Imagine him as a pro player in today's game? He'd barely be big enough to play defensive back. Keep your memories, but don't get carried away. You are seeing football at its best, right now, with the best players ever."

The old man sat silently. He got off his stool.

"I wonder," he said, finally, to the young man, "what you will be saying to your children in 25 years. Then maybe you will know how I feel. You keep your weightlifting and your all-star teams. I'll keep my memories."