What the public remembers Harry Edwards for, however vaguely, is the black boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics that never became a reality. What the public should remember him for is the avalanche of change he sent roaring through the insular world of sports.

It was change for the better and no one is quicker to point that out than the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Edwards, a man who is as proud as he is physically awesome.

"The whole area of sports sociology emerged out of '68," Edwards says. "An entire generation of athletes and writers was convinced to look at what they were involved in. They began questioning what they were doing and they began to seriously consider the ongoing and evolving relationship of sports and society."

The athletes to whom Edwards originally took his message were amateurs. So it was that John Carlos and Tommy Smith, two Olympic sprinters who wondered how much society would care about them when time stole their speed, shocked the nation with black power salutes from the winners' stand in Mexico City.

That was only the beginning. Professional sports were quickly populated by athletes whose consciousness had been raised, and it showed.

Bill Walton made no secret of political leanings that made myriad grandstand Americans see red. Dave Cowens decided his peace of mind was more important than helping the Boston Celtics try for their 14th World championship. And player unions in every sport began baring newly sharpened teeth.

"The team owners used to throw a barbecue after the season and they issued the invitations through the unions," Edwards says. "When there's a barbecue now, it's the owners who are on the spit."

Edwards has watched the past seven years of this revolution from the comparatively calm campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Now he appears ready to return to battle on a couple of fronts.

One is the battle for tenure as a full professor of sociology at Berkeley. The other is a campaign to turn racially segregated South Africa into an international athletic eunuch. That is just the kind of fight anyone who knows Harry Edwards would expect him to be in.

But Edwards, 32, bald and goateed, insists he is different from the San Jose State sociology instructor whose loud voice and unbending ideals made him the catalyst of the jock rebellion.

"I'm more radical but I'm more radical in a systematic sense," he explains. "I've learned that sentiment must be balanced by rationality. If it isn't, there will inevitably be chaos."

With that in mind, perhaps it is predictable Edwards also regards himself as increasingly patient, both with others and with himself. "I've come to value what people will think of me 20 years from now much more than what people think of me now," he says.

The alterations in Edwards' psyche mirror the life he has been leading since he arrived at Berkeley in the fall of 1969 after playing a leading role in a sit-in at Cornell University that almost erupted in gunplay.

He returned to the West in search of a place to read and reflect and contemplate the twists and turns of his life. "Even a revolutionary," he says now, "must take the time to do that."

The Bay Area was the perfect place for him to step away from the battlefield without completely losing contact with it. "Everything of consequence in politics starts here and sweeps eastward," he says. "It's alive with excitement, foment, change and challenge. It's a haven for writers, intellectuals, politicians, activists - men with ideas." Besides, the woman he loved was in the Bay area, too.

They are married now - the radical and the kindergarten teacher - and they have two daughters, one 4 years old and the other born three days before Christmas. Together, they live a happy, California kind of existence in the ultraconservative community of Fremont, 30 minutes south of Berkeley.

Domestic bliss may not be what the public expects of a man with Edwards' fierce image, but it is precisely what Edwards wants.

"While I've been a radical, I've always wanted to be a family man, too," he says. "I like to go home at night and sit down to a nice dinner. I like to watch ball game on TV. I like to go for a walk in the park with my children. This is the one thing I never had when I was a kid - a good, stable family situation."

Edwards grew up in a hellhole called East St. Louis, Ill. It was choked by rats, gangsters and rednecks. It was a place to escape from, and Edwards escaped just before he turned 16.

He went to Fresno (Calif.) City College and threw the discus 179 feet "or something like that" for a national junior college record. He also discovered racism was not something of which East St. Louis had cornered the market.

"I got a straight dose right to the chops in Fresno," he recalls. "There were only a few blacks in school and, of course, all of them were athletes. The coaches came right out and told us, 'If you date a white girl, you'll be off the team.'"

"The racism was more subtle at San Jose State. They didn't give you any warning there. They just kicked you off the team."

That was the way it was in track and field. That was the way it was in basketball, where Edwards gathered rebounds and distributed bruises. It was a spirit-sapping problem, but he quickly turned it into something from which he could gather ammunition for the future.

"By the time I was a sophomore in college, he says, "sports for me had become a laboratory."

The first thing Edwards cooked up in that laboratory was a campaign for improved treatment of his fellow black athletes at San Jose State. Then he set out to fry some much bigger fish.

He laid siege to the New York Athletic Club, which refused blacks as members, and organized a black boycott of the club's annual track meet at Madison Square Garden.

The great finale, of course, was his unsuccessful attempt to keep blacks away from the 1968 Olympics en masse. With that, he became an all-America villain, a frightening role but not a role that has scared him off.

He is still trying to refute academia's traditional disdain for the games people play, still trying to leave his children a legacy "to prove that I could deal with the protracted struggle that is life."

Noble as that may be, Edwards is not foolish enough to believe that everyone who is aware of his existence is enamored of his goals. Indeed, he thinks, as he has for the last decade, that he will die violently because of them.

"What else can a black man who speaks out in the most racist, repressive society in history think?" he says.

For the moment, however, he is battling to avoid being snuffed out academically. The people who have the power to make him a full professor with tenure apparently are not swayed by his standing-room-only classes in race relations and sports sociology.

Nor do the judges of the Berkeley faculty seem impressed by Edwards' three degrees, the three books and 50 magazine articles he has published since 1970, his two scholarly journeys to China, or even his power to earn Everyman's dream - $100,000 a year.

"They tell me my writing is uneven," Edwards says, thoughtfully stroking his goatee. "But it's funny that the only other person who is having trouble getting tenure right now is Ishmael Reed."

Reed is a novelist ("Flight to Canada," "The Last Days of Louisiana Red") who has taught writing at Berkeley for several years. "He has never made a political move in his life," says Edwards. "We are completely different except for one thing - we're both black."

"The way I look at it, the people at radical UC-Berkeley don't want us in the country club."

If they are as determined to be rid of Edwards and Reed as Edwards is to block South Africa from international athletic competition, then he is in dire trouble.

Edwards and a small band of colleagues watched two Olympiads pass while they prepared for their big plunge. It looked as if the International Olympic Committee might have stolen their thunder last summer by bouncing South Africa from the Montreal Games for racist policies. But that was just the beginning of what Edwards has in mind.

"We are going to shut off anything that South Africa can milk for political propaganda - the Davis Cup, rugby, soccer," he says. "We are going to set up boycotts not only of South Africa but of any nation that participates with South Africa. We are going to create a vice-like situation and we are going to totally isolate them."

The antiapartheid movement will not be as racially narrow as Edwards' stillborn black boycott of 1968, which wanted little to do with white sympathizers like Harold Connolly and the Harvard crew team. Nor will it concentrate on athletes, a breed that thrives on public approval, without first winning the backing of their communities. That is one more lesson from 1968.

The drive against South Africa will be spread around the globe instead of concentrated in the United States. For that, Edwards is grateful. "This country is definitely a question mark," he says.

But there are enough sure things - England, France, the Soviet Union, western Europe and the black socialist countries, to name a few - to convince Edwards that "we cannot fail."

He says that even though the movement's cash drawer is heavy on promises and light on contributions and lecture fees.Nothing can shake his belief that, when detailed plans of the boycott are announced in April, the minuses will turn into pluses. For this is a moment he has been awaiting for seven years.

"I am ready," Edwards says, "to enter the arena again."