Retirements, especially the athletic variety, tend to wallow in sad reflection, of what might have been or what should have been. Not so with Larry Brown. Those with the most affection for him are grateful - and a bit surprised - that he left the Redskin wars yesterday under his own power.

No one in the NFL ever played with more abandon or stretched his natural gifts farther than Brown. Because he abused his body so and had such fierce pride, it seemed almost inevitable in the last two years that his farewell to the faithful would be on a stretcher , in another great surge of pain.

Though neither the swiftest nor the strongest of runners - and especially not the flashiest - Brown still was unique, always struggling for one more inch. The knees that carried him to more than 5,000 yards his first five years, though, also limited him to just over 800 the last three.

A place awaits Brown in the NFL Hall of Fame for solid numbers as well as the usual sentiment. Only Jim Brown and O. J. Simpson got to 5,000 career yards as quickly, and though his 5,875 yards puts him 11th on the all-time list, they still are more than Gale Sayers gained. Or Steve Van Buren, Hugh McElhenny, Lenny Moore and Ollie Matson.

And his teammate, Calvin Hill, the former Cowboy who beat Brown out for rookie-of-the-year honors in 1969 and who will give his own battered knees more punishment this year.

Brown's roots apparently extend to South Carolina, to a line of Baptist preachers on his mother's side, and on his father's to slaves who took their master's name Black - until the Civil War ended.

Brown's athletic roots were in the tough Hill District of Pittsburgh and Schenley High, with talented playmates that included the grandson of Josh Gibson. He endured Dodge City Junior College and obscurity as a blocker at Kansas State.

Throughout his Redskin days, as perhaps the best eighth-round draft choice anyone in NFL history ever made, Brown spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make his body last as long as possible in the NFL.

As a rookie find under Vince Lombardi, Brown would work on weights long and hard even after practice. At a relatively ancient (for running backs) 28 last year, the pace continued, with the familiar threat - time - and a new one - John Riggins.

"A glimpse," he said at the time. "That's what I want, a glimpse of how it used to be."

Somehow it always seemed best against the New York teams, the Giants and Jets. On Oct. 29, 1972, the day of the Jurgesen heel injury, Brown gained 191 yards in 29 carries while being drenched in beer and pelted by oranges in Yankee Stadium.

Later that year, in Shea Stadium, Brown took a swing pass from Billy Kilmer and dashed 89 yeards for touchdown. Still, most Brown-like were the sweeps and plunges that went for relatively short yardage, much of it on his own. His blockers never were mistaken for the Seven Blocks of Granite.

Most memorable was a short-yardage play in the '70 playoff against the Cowboys, a test of wills between an aching Brown and an aching Bob Lilly. Brown won.

Also, the night after he topped 1,000 yards for the second time in his career he was inside the District of Columbia's Receiving Home for Children saying: "It's up to you to have the desire to be someone. All of you are to have the desire to be someone. All of you are down because of being in this institution. But don't be ashamed to get up. Say to youself, 'I want to be someone.'

"Get up."

Brown got what he thought was his financially by not reporting to training camp for 10 days three years ago, and last year he helped counsel another rather smallish runner from Pittsburgh - Tony Dorsett - on the realities of the NFL.

Though he spoke most eloquently with his legs, Brown's humor surfaces publicly now and then. To a woman at a benefit barbecue who, four months after the Redskins played in the Super Bowl, said he looked vaguely familiar. Brown replied:

"I'm a new member of the board of directors of the Children's Hearing and Speech Center."

To those who have followed Brown's career closest, the only sad thought at the moment is how he will adjust to life without football. Most vivid is the recollection of a talk very early in 1975.

The restaurant that bore his name was not going well. One of the reasons was that Brown had recently undergone knee surgery, and it hurt like blazes simply to stand, let alone mingle with customers who came for a glimpse of him as much as for the food and drink.

Brown was upstairs, insisting he could continue as effectively as ever, and if not he'd try wide receiver. Or tight end. Or go back to blocking. At times, he seemed almost frightened. Rich and famous - and so uncertain.

The exit yesterday was done with grace and dignity. Brown deserves several thousand more yards now in the real world.