Lemar Parrish has a lucrative, long-term contract that says, he is the best cornerback in the National Football League.

He says matter-of-factly that his salary reflects his ability.

If Redskin opponents would try more often to conquer that "lonely island" he occupies every game, then possibly the rest of pro football finally will give him his proper recognition.

Yes, he has played in the Pro Bowl five times and once, in 1977, he made a news service All-Pro team.

But when the television golden throats talk about the game's great cornerbacks, they usually first mention such players as Louie Wright, Willie Buchanon, Mike Haynes and Pat Thomas. Lemar Parrish usually comes as an afterthought.

"Lemar occupies a lonely island every week," said Redskin Coach Jack Pardee. "He does a great job of protecting his possession. So good teams just don't throw at him that much."

But this could be the year Parrish's stock soars as high as his stunning vertical jump, the trait that has earned him the sobriquet, "Leapin' Lemar."

He already has a league-leading four interceptions, even though opponents still try picking on fellow cornerback Joe Lavender more frequently. Parrish has become so good that he now can take advantage of even limited opportunities to display his abilities.

That was never more clear than in Sunday's game against St. Louis, when his end zone interception of a Jim Hart pass with five minutes to go insured a Redskin triumph.

When Hart released his two-yard pass thrown in the direction of Gary Parris, there was no Washington player in sight. By the time the football arrived, Parrish had overtaken Parris, leaving no avenue for the ball to sneak through to the Cardinal, who was on the ground.

"Only a super athlete makes that play," Pardee said. "You can't believe how far he had to come to do it. You just have to shake your head at it."

A lot of people shake their heads when talking about Parrish. He looks too small to be cavorting in this land of giants. He is listed as 5-foot-11, but two inches of that height must be padding in his helmet.

On game days, his size never has been a handicap. Blessed with superior quickness and instincts that only a few athletes display, he is like a pesky fly who refuses to go away, no matter how many times he is swatted.

Teams like to try to loft the ball over his head, but the kind of leg spring that enables him to touch the crossbar on the goal post with his elbow usually thwarts that strategy.

Foes also attempt to bowl him over with large receivers, not knowing that he learned to play football on the sandy beaches of Florida by jumping on these big guys' backs and bulldogging them to the ground. "I always managed to get them down," he says.

He almost always does. Parrish claims he has been beaten one-on-one for a touchdown just three times in his 10-year career -- and this season, he thinks he is on the verge of turning in his best performance yet.

"I got off to another fast start, I had something like six interceptions in seven games one year in Cincinnati," he said, "and then they stopped throwing at me and I finished with seven.

"Now I feel I can do better. Joe Bird (Lavender) is a fine cornerback too and he's not easy to beat. I also usually cover their top receiver and, shoot, they are going to keep throwing to him.

"There is no reason why I can't play better. I still have my quickness and my reflexes and I have experience. And I have instinct. That's God-given, I guess. It just doesn't fail me."

It has taken Parrish so many years to reach this point in his career mainly because of what he calls "a crazy situation" in Cincinnati, where he landed after being drafted on the seventh round out of Lincoln in Missouri.

Parrish spent three years lobbying to leave the Bengals, who weren't paying him at the level he thought was proper. The more he publicly asked to be given a raise or to be traded, the less popular he became with Paul Brown.

"Paul Brown controlled the press, I think," Parrish said. "If he wanted you to be well known, you were. But in my case, if I got a good reputation as a player, it would hurt his salary stand. So I never got the press that others did.

"That hurt me. It didn't get me the recognition that others were getting. There was no way he was going to build me up when it would cost him money.

Brown finally got so tired of Parrish's demands that the cornerback and teammate Coy Bacon were shipped to Washington last season in exchange for a No. 1 draft choice. Parrish soon got the contract he wanted from the Redskins: a $600,000, five year pact that makes him one of the highest paid players at his position in the league.

That is not bad for someone who has spent most of his athletic life trying to convince coaches he was a player, not a candidate for water boy.

"In high school, my coach wanted me to play fullback when I was a sophomore," Parrish said. "For once, I figured I had to remember my size. I told him no way and I quit.

"The next year, he let me play halfback and I led the team in rushing."

But colleges weren't interested in 168-pound running backs, so his coach had to talk his alma mater, Lincoln, into accepting Parrish.

"When the coach at Lincoln saw me, he said, 'You are small.' He started calling me 'Little Boy' but he never used me. So I went to him and said, shoot, just give me a chance and if I can't do it, cut me!"

Parrish's talk was so convincing he was on the second team by the opening game and a starter the next week. In his senior season, he scored 14 touchdowns, mostly on game breaking runs.

Then size hurt him again. Pro computers regularly spit out 5-11, 178 pound runners. The Bengals grabbed him to see if he could make it as a cornerback, a position Parrish had never tried.

"I put in a lot of time preparing," he said. "I worked morning, noon and night. My friends thought I was crazy, they said I was too small, too."

Once Parrish learned to backpedal as fast as most NFL linemen run forward, the rest was simple. From the beginning, he was a fierce competitor who thrived on that worst of all cornerback feelings, the loneliness which comes with one-on-one coverage.

"I feel I'm the best and that means I have to prove it every week," he said. "It's lonely out there, there is pressure on you and when you get beat, it feels awful. So I just try not to get beat that often.

"The mental edge always has helped me. I have confidence, I always have. They may think they can beat me and I think I can beat them, so the worst I want is a standoff."

To get away from all this in-season pressure, Parrish built a $175,000, 13 room house on a lake in North Palm Beach, Fla. It has a swimming pool, conversation pit, skylights and Parrish's favorite -- a music room "where you can lay back and listen while you watch the stars."

He also is developing shopping centers, after a fling at plastics manufacturing. By the time his contract runs out when he will be 35, he feels he will meet the goal he set as a rookie.

"I said that when I was 34 or 35, I wanted to be able to retire with a good solid income," he said. "I think I'm well on my way to that goal."

Pardee was pessimistic about both Karl Lorch (sore foot) and Paul Smith (hip pointer) playing Sunday at Atlanta. "It doesn't look good," he said, although Lorch says there is no doubt he will play . . . Pardee said if neither can suit up, "we won't go into the game with four defensive linemen," meaning Perry Brooks, coming off an arm injury, would be activated for the game. The Redskins can wait until Saturday to make a decision, giving them another practice day to see if Brooks is ready. Joe Jones most likely will start for Lorch . . . Clarence Harmon is the latest player to come down with flu. Parrish, who was ill Wednesday, practiced full time yesterday . . .