Gary Etherington will remember last week's plane ride to Portland, Ore., for a long time. A stewardess prompted by the Cosmos' public relations man, announced over the plane's intercom that Etherington had just been selected as North American Soccer League rookie of the year.

That honor was particularly special because of the Cosmos' star-filled roster - with world-class players at nearly every position drawing the attention of both media and other players.

In addition, Etherington started only 10 games. Finally, this was not even his first season in the league.

The 1976 graduate of Virginia's Mount Vernon High played just three games as a first-year man in the 1977 season. That was three fewer games than required to exclude him from rookie this season.

Etherington also has the honor of being the only draft choice out of high school in the history of the Cosmos. Ray Klivecka, the president Cosmos assistant coach, had him on the United States National Youth team in 1976 and was impressed, along with former Cosmos and present Washington Diplomat Coach Gordon Bradley.

"He had the quickness, agility and shot that put him way above players his age," Klivecka said. "He was overwhelming on that level."

Etherington played soccer at Mount Vernon for three seasons, scoring 44 goals at the wing, the position he stills plays. He also played one season as a placekicker on the football team and was a golfer in his freshman year.

The slightly built Etherington 5-foot-8, 140 pounds came to America as a 12-year-old, leaving his Southampton, England, birthplace. His father, an amateur soccer player, has started Etherington at the game "as soon as I could walk."

Etherington did not play soccer during his freshman year at Mount Vernon because he competed for the Annandale Boys Club team, which went on to win the National Junior Cup.

The Cosmos contacted Etherington late in his senoir year and he was persuaded to pass up a soccer scholarship to the University of Virginia.

"It was a difficult decision," Etherington said. "I know in America you need a lot of education, but I always wanted to play pro soccer. I guess that was a big decision for an 18-year-old to have to make."

When the Cosmos picked him, they believed he was one to three years away from playing regularly. "He had all the physical potential, but he needed work on subtleties like using his left foot and making the right pass at the right time," Klivecka commented.

But Etherington worked hard, coming early and leaving late at practice. This season, he started getting more playing time when regular wings Dennis Tueart and Steve Hunt were injured.

"He started playing more minutes, proved himself so that we were not reluctant to use him even more," said Klivecka. "He was impressive with his speed: Three steps and he would be gone. Plus, he got back on defense."

As a wing, Etherington's primary job was to feed the inside forwards. This season he registered 11 assists and scored three goals.

Etherington remains unawed by the likes of teammates Giorgio Chinaglia Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. "He has that type of personality that lets him get along with anybody," said Kilvecka. "He's just a nice young boy who goes out and plays soccer."

Etherington added, "Playing in New York is very demanding because the press and fans demand winners. I like it here, though, because I believe the future of soccer in the States lies with the Cosmos."