Right after Super Bowl 3 between the Jets and the Colts was over I got a call from a journalism student at Columbia. He said, "Don't you feel ashamed of yourself" - he was doing a paper - "for putting out such a bad line?"

The price was always between 17 and 20. It may have reached 20 and went down to 19. It opened at 17, Colts favored, or 17 1/2, I forget now.

Anyhow, I said, "No, on the contrary, I think it's one of the best lines we ever put up." The journalism student just didn't understand the concept of what a line should do. Much of the nation still doesn't.

A line should be a splitter. It should make 100 people bet on A and 100 people bet on B. Which is what we're going to do. We're not predicting the winner.

No one seems exactly sure where or when the point-spread concept for betting on football games originated. The Gorham Press and its "Green Sheet" out of Minneapolis generally receive credit for converting the nation's autumn wagering interest from odds to points in about 1942.

But there were regional lines before that, in the late 1930s.

Today, no one seems to be able to offer an intelligent estimate as to exactly how much money is wagered each fall on football. Billions, certainly. But how many billions?

What is known is that betting on football games - professional and college - has become a national obsession. From the pinnacles of power in Washington (doesn't every office here have a weekly pool?) to nearly every street corner in the country, football betting touches million of people.

If many Americans are not aware of Arthur Burns' status at the Federal Reserve, there are millions who know all about Craig Morton's revival at Denver; Earl Campbell's power at the University of Texas, and Bert Jones' arm in Baltimore.

If Bert Lance's numbers confused some Washingtonians, Baltimore by 11 over Washington last night was simple.

The name of the man who serves as the Head Linesman for the Bet Set is Bob Martin of the Union Plaza sports book in Las Vegas, Nev.

Martin grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn once referred to as the home of Murder, Inc. His early interest in sports gambling centered on boxing. He was a matchmaker, bookmaker and better at various stages of his career. Then Bobby Kennedy busted his Washington operation. Martin went to Miami.

"I went broke, betting mostly baseball in Miami," he said. "It happens to all batters. They fall by the wayside . . . one day I got a call from a friend who was out here in Las Vegas. He told me the morning sun was beautiful. It was warm, at 3 in teh morning. He was laying out by the pool, and they were bringing him fresh orange juice. That was 15 years ago."

Martin first made a national reputation with his prices at the Churchill Downs Race and Sports Book on the Vegas strip. Today he is recognized as "the Man" whose opinion has the strongest impact on football gambling. Other service lines are available, from various regions of the country, but most seem to adopt a wait-and-see position until Martin's quotations are posted.

To Martin, football is a numbers game. His only experience as a football player was in the sandlots. He does not pretend to be an expert, in terms of technical knowledge of the game.

"The mechanics of what I do is not complex. If Team A is three points over Team B, and Team B and Team C are equal, then, theoretically. A should be 3 points over C. That's a general outline. You work off a general outline. You have a certain rating system, whether it's in your mind or on paper.

"I have a rating system for all 28 pro teams, and I'll vary it from time to time. Naturally, there are a lot of things to take into consideration, starting with the home field. I make a rough draft Sunday, after the games are over. Monday I try to read as much as I can, the writeups, the stats, the injury reports. Late Monday morning I try to refine my early numbers."

To the football bettor, Martin's "numbers" are everything. They will be accepted by bookmakers across the country and offered as the official line, with regional variation occasionally for a hometown team. Martin's numbers are a bookie's security shield. Without them, left to their own opinion, most bookmakers would be bombed out of business in a hurry.

"All point spreads can be translated into terms of money," Martin said, "but when you reach the 13- or 14-point level, the odds would no longer be inviting to much of the betting public.

"For instance, a team that is a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to 14-point underdog is roughly a 5-to-1 shot. But people don't like to bet that team to win the game, even at 5 to 1. They'd rather take the points knowing that, even if their team loses by, say, 13 points, they can still win their bet."

The point spread, accordingly, has generated tremendous interesting football betting. Bet a team to win by [WORD ILLEGIBLE] or more points and, if it wins by nine, you lose. Conversely, bet an underdog team to lose by 13 points or fewer and, if the score is 28-17 in favor of the favorite, you still win.

Martin's impact on the way bettors bet is much more complex than that, however. He has the power to "move" a game before the first dollar is waggered. Often, he anticipates the way the money will be bet and adjusts his figures accordingly, in advance.

[PARAGRAPH ILLEGIBLE]

[WORD ILLEGIBLE] it is one or two, Oakland. [WORD ILLEGIBEL] that didn't stop anybody. Early in the week, there were people reaching in on Oakland, giving one, but soon the tip had started to snowball. Cincinnati eventually became a 2 1/2-point favorite, and lost.

So long as the bookmaker is able to balance his ledger on the two teams, the bookmaker doesn't care which team wins. That's the way the bookmaker wants it.

"The only edge the bookmaker needs is the 11 to 10," Martin says. The bettor risks $11 to try to win $10. That's $110 to try to win $100, or $1,100 in an attempt to win $1,000. The bettor pays this difference, the "vigorish," only when he loses.

Martin contends, over the long run, no bettor can beat the 11 to 1. The bookmaker, he insists, will always wear out the bettor, under this system.

But some bookmakers in the Washington area don't believe their profit margin is adequate. Their views will be discussed on Wednesday.