Ottis Anderson knew he had a place in big-business football at a tender age -- the same day, in fact, he realized big-business football had a way of keeping players in their place.

He was a freshman running back at Miami at the time, good enough to be judged the Florida school's best player on the field against Notre Dame but unable to accept the prize -- a reclining chair -- without forfeiting his collegiate eligibility.

"So it sat in the athletic director's office," said former Miami Coach Carl Selmer, now an assistant at Kansas State, "and every now and then Ottis would pop in, eye it and say: 'Anybody mind if I sit in my chair.'"

Nobody minded. This year he was able to grab his chair and run to the NFL, where he also made a profound impression in a hurry.And all gifts can be gratefully accepted, the NFL being less hypocritical than the NCAA.

Anderson generally was unappreciated in college except by the few people who mattered most -- the NFL scouts. He was the first running back selected in the most recent draft, by the St. Louis Cardinals, and the eighth player overall, behind two linebackers, two quarterbacks, two defensive linemen and a wide receiver.

Now he is familiar even to casual NFL watchers, having thundered through the Dallas Cowboys defense, obsessed with stopping runners, for 193 yards in his first pro game that mattered and through the Giants for 109 yards in his second.

Anderson was equally impressive against the Giants, scouts agreed, because he was running behind a Cardinal offensive line without all-pro center Tom Banks for the entire game and without all-pro right tackle Dan Dierdorf all the second half.

"Unfortunately for us," said Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard, "he's for real. He doesn't really remind me of any of the other great runners; he's comfortable outside and strong and tough inside. He's a slasher with breakaway speed -- and he also catches the ball.

"With (quarterback Jim) Hart, (wide receiver Mel) Gray and that line, it's like a basketball franchise that all of a sudden gets that big center. The Miami trainer, who measures things like that, said he's got the strongest legs he's ever seen."

Only one runner in NFL history, Alan Ameche with the Colts 24 years ago, had a more productive debut -- a scant 36 inches. Only Eal Campbell last year, Ameche in 1955 and Zollie Toth in 1950 with the New York Yankees gained more than 100 yards in each of their first two pro games. None of them gained 100 yards his third pro game.

If their on-the-field style is dissimilar, Anderson and Campbell share an off-the-field concern, their mothers. Both have known poverty and both are in the process of building fine homes for mothers who somehow stretched a tiny amount of money an enormous distance.

"I'm playing out a goal, building that house my brother (Smokey) set for himself," Anderson said over the phone the other day. Smokey Anderson also was a gifted player in West Palm Beach, Fla., though at the all-black high school but died in a mysterious swimming accident after enrolling at Arkansas AM & N.

"She was a maid," Anderson said of his mother, Emma, who put five kids all the way through high school on money that never could have amounted to more than $70 a week. "Even now, when she doesn't have to, she works."

Emma Anderson passed the zest for work to her son, who carried the ball 52 times his first two games for the Cardinals. It was two fewer carries than another exceptional rookie, William Andrews of Atlanta, and seven fewer than Walter Payton, but at a pace that would break the NFL season record for carries by 77.

"He seems faster now than when he played for me," said Selmer, who recruited Anderson but was fired before the final game of the 1976 season, "against Houston, the Southwest Conference champs, and Ottis must have gained 170 or 180 yards. But we lost."

"He knew quite a bit about me," Anderson said. "We were close. I tried to bid him a good farewell, show everyone he should still be in there coaching."

Whatever lessons a superior runner must master Anderson learned early -- especially the one that insists you carry the ball across the goal line even though no tackler is within the same zip code.

"The last game of his last year Ottis had something like 270 yards," said his former high school coach, Jerry Jacobs. "He'd also scored four touchdowns and went 60 yards for what seemed a sure thing for the fifth that would have set a conference scoring record.

"Nobody was close to him, but he dropped the ball a yard or so before he got to the end zone. He just forgot where he was, and one of our tackles recovered it for the touchdown."

That area of Florida had enough fine players to give Anderson the sort of competition that pushed a body that has matured to 6 feet 1 inch and 210 pounds to the limit. Several players from there, including Cardinal safety Ken Stone and Redskin cornerback Lemar Parrish, have done well in the NFL.

"Tell him (Parrish) I'm looking forward to seeing him," Anderson said. "We worked out together this summer. He helped me prepare for what i'd have to deal with in the pros, what I could expect from the linebackers and the deep backs."

They will run into one another next Sunday in St. Louis. But Anderson has a more immediate problem: the Steelers today.