"Sometimes the biggest hurdle is simply being civil," said Ed Garvey. "If you've been lighting someone this long and this intensely, and you know they've been trying to break you, it's tough to get everybody to think: 'Hey, maybe they're serious. Maybe they want to deal.'"

When the NFL Players Association kept getting devastating downfield blocking from veteran bench warmers, when assorted judges began treating cherished NFL customs the way Gene Upshaw cuffed Alan Page in the Super Bowl, the NFL owners grew serious. They wanted a deal.

After nearly three years, after two strikes and one near mutiny, after much silliness and enough rational thought on both sides, the NFL has achieved peace in our time - or at least for five years. The players union has survived - and will prosper.

With a contract that surely will be approved by is rank and file, the union has not achieved utopia, because professional fun and games cannot survive total player freedom. But the owners, at last, have yielded on the three areas that were so irksome to the players and - as a package - were so patently wrong.

Those restrictions were the draft, the compensation provision known as the Rozelle Rule and the standard player contract. None has been eliminated, although judges ruled the draft and Rozelle Rule illegal; all have been modified to the point a player has a decent chance to influence his career.

"I can look a player in the eye," said Garvey, "and say we've helped 75 to 80 per cent of our membership right away." Meaning that nearly everyone, not just the O.J. Csonkas of the NFL, can go shopping, see what he is worth. And build some security for the inevitable moment injury or age forces him into the insurance business.

In August the union president, Dick Anderson, and the owners' Dan Rooney reached an agreement that the players rejected. By waiting, by holding their ground, they achieved these additional benefits:

$16 million as settlement for various lawsuits.

Impartial arbitration.

Draft improvements.

The right of first refusal for clubs with players playing out their options.

Injury protection, the significant, although often overlooked, item that guarantees half the second-year salary, up to $37,500, for anyone badly hurt in the first year of multi-year contract.

"It's tough to give and take," said Garvey. "You want to win. But when you do that it's a disaster."

If what the players receive is less than what some players wanted, it is significantly more than what they had. And where their union - and Garvey - are in relation to their position in the recent past is astonishing.

"We survived," he said, "when there were a whole lot of owners saying: 'Hang in there, the union will disappear.' You have to recognize that we have survived for three years without a contract, having lost a strike, with no checkoff, having been deeply in debt.

"And still we were over there at 1300 Connecticut Avenue. Every time they (the owners) turn around we're there. Finally, somebody flipped a switch and said: 'Let's deal with these people. Is it that painful?'"

Settlement, or at least what appears to be a solution, proved an emotional moment for Garvey and those who battled longest, Len Hauss and Kermit Alexander, Tom Keating and John Mackey, Randy Vataha and Doug Van Horn.

"After we lost the '74 strike, we were down to 350 dues-paying members," said Garvey. "And in August of '75 there were teams calling for my resignation."

But every time either Garvey or the union seemed about to sink a judge would throw out a lifeline in the form of a ruling against the owners. Finally, the owners losing an appeal on the Rozelle Rule and the draft being declared illegal brought them dashing to the bargaining table.

"Last Tuesday Kermit Alexander said to me: 'Don't ever make them feel like we did in 1970.' We got a contract shoved down our throats. We decided it would never happen again, and it never did.

"We will never have to go through this kind of battle again."

For the Redskins and George Allen, there are short-term problems and long-term benefits with the agreement. Allen would have preferred one more year of chaos, of no draft and an open market on free agents. He could have made off with a Marvin Powell or some execellent collegiate lineman he cannot acquire with no high draft choices.

Ultimately, Allen needs a draft as much as anyone, because he needs something to barter for the veteran players he covets.

It is significant that the three members of the owners' team the players respected most were Dan Rooney of the Steelers, Wellington Mara of the Giants and Sarg Karch. Two, Rooney and Mara, trace their NFL roots to their fathers, to the pre-'60s, to pre-World War II NFL.

And what of Garvey now that the battle appears over. If a cabinet-level position called Secretary of Agitation were in the Carter administration at least 20 owners would nominate Garvey. He is likely to remain executive director of the union for at least a year, though, to nurse the agreement through its tense phases.

A few minutes after the apparent peace Garvey and Vataha, charter members if ever an athletic labor hall of fame is created, finally took that victorious handshake that had been so long in coming.

"A helluva job," Vataha said. "See you in five years, and we'll do it again."