In the twilight of his National Football League career, Calvin Hill says the entire "real world" is open to him and he's going to grasp it with every ounce of feeling he can muster.

This is Hill's 12th season as a professional football player, three times the length of an average NFL running back's career. But Hill has never been average. His 6-foot-4, 227-pound presence on a field still commands tremendous respect. As a recent magazine story about him said, "Over the hill, Calvin ain't."

Opposing teams still fear him, and his Cleveland Brown teammates and coaches look to the 33-year-old native of Baltimore as a pillar.

That the Browns are tied with Houston for first place in the tough AFC Central is a surprise to many, but not to Hill.

"We've got good people, we get along and we're having fun," Hill said. "Those are the keys to success in any business."

Hill is at that delicate point in his career where it is tough to decide whether his greatest worth to the Browns lies on the field or off it. His statistics are unique for a power running fullback. He isn't a workhorse anymore and usually plays only on third downs.

He hasn't carried the ball from scrimmage this season, but he has caught 18 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns.

"The two things he does best are the two things most running backs don't do well. He catches passes and he blocks," said quarterback Brian Sipe. "When I have to throw the ball I want him in the game."

Even though Hill has run for more than 6,000 yards and scored more than 60 touchdowns in his career, his game has been mostly mental.

"Real leaders and appointed leaders aren't always the same," said Coach Sam Rutigliano. "Calvin is a real leader and everyone knows it."

"My initial goal in this league was just to make it," Hill said in a recent interview. "Once I accomplished that I set a higher goal. I doubt if I'll ever reach that one, though. For one season I wanted to reach my full potential. I don't think I ever did that. Once I realized what was going on and was at my intellectual peak as a player, my ability had slipped. If I could have put my ability together with my mind, I could have been a terror."

Hill's experience as a Redskin was a frustrating one.

"I don't understand the Washington situation," he said. "I always did well, but they never used me. I can't associate logic to a lot of things that have happened.

"Washington has very appreciative fans and it would have been nice to play there. It just didn't work out. Playing a part-time role here in Cleveland I've been able to do more for the fans than I did for the Redskins' fans in two years at Washington."

Hill, a graduate of Yale, was the Dallas Cowboys' first-round draft choice in 1969. In six seasons as a Cowboy, Hill gained 5,009 yards and scored 45 touchdowns. He appeared to be on top of the world.

Appearances can be deceiving.

Hill is a creature of mind as well as matter. If he can't learn and grow, he feels stifled.

Despite his success in Dallas, Hill felt "I was ready to make a change after six years there." He jumped to Hawaii of the World Football League, and the experience changed him as much as any in his life.

"It mellowed me," Hill says. "Before I was uptight. I came out of Yale in the 1960s so I thought I could change the world all by myself. Obviously I was wrong and the way the world was, was frustrating to me. I was beginning to think that maybe man couldn't live together.

"In Hawaii I saw different kinds of people living and working and being together. It didn't matter what you were or what your color was. It only mattered who you were. You were accepted or not accepted solely on your merits as a human being. That was the first time in my life I had felt that."

On the field, though, things were different. Hill seriously injured his knee, and later the league folded. Hill, long coveted by George Allen, who was then coach of the Redskins, signed with Washington in 1976.

He was the backup to Mike Thomas, finished the 1977 season very strong and was promised by Allen that he would be given every opportunity to be a starter the following season.

But Allen was gone by the next season, replaced by Jack Pardee. Hill felt destined for backup duty again, "so instead of becoming a bitcher, I retired."

His heart wasn't in retirement, though, and four games into the 1978 season he got his chance for a comeback. After the Browns lost Greg Pruitt and Tom Sullivan to knee injuries, they signed Hill. He ran for 289 yards and caught 25 passes for 334 more, and scored seven touchdowns in 12 games that season.

He knew his role was to fill in until Pruitt came back.He accepted it.

"You can't just know Calvin Hill without having a strong feeling for him," said Pruitt. "He touches you."

"He's shown a lot of people how to act and what to do in certain situations both on and off the field," said Dennis Lynch, director of operations for the Browns. "He both keeps you loose and on your toes. Everyone knows Calvin has been everywhere and seen it all. You'd almost be a fool not to follow him anywhere."

Hill is ready to lead. "I owe it to the younger players to impart my knowledge to them," he said. "I try to let them know how and why things happened in the past and why they may happen again. You just try to make life a little easier for the next person. If you're secure you can do that. I'm secure. People like Pettis Norman, Herb Adderley and Chuck Howley did it for me and now it's up to me to help the next generation."

Politics don't interest Hill, "because you have to try and please too many different kinds of people," but political issues are a deep concern of his.

Hill, who lives in Reston, Va., spent last offseason in Washington as a special assistant to the director of the Peace Corps, helping raise funds to feed the refugees of Somalia.

His off-the-field activities don't stop there. He has also been to divinity school, and been active in the Southern Christian Leadership Council and various civil rights groups.

"I care about people," Hill said, "and I want them to know it."

Not many things surprise Calvin Hill anymore, especially in football. "But I never thought I'd see a Doug Williams," he said, referring to the Tampa Bay quarterback. "I never thought I'd see a black quarterback that good."

Hill speaks with obvious pride when he speaks about Williams. "When we played Tampa, I really wanted to see Doug do well," Hill said. "He's doing what I always wanted to do -- break some new ground and pave the way for others to follow and do it with your presence and style, not with your rhetoric.

"With Doug it's a question of realizing what tremendous pressure he's under because the future of black quarterbacks everywhere could be riding on him. As a result, whatever you can do to lighten that pressure for him, you want to do.

"Think of all the great black quarterbacks who were switched to other positions, solely because they were black. It happened to me in high school when they switched me from quarterback to middle linebacker. I was shocked. It may have been the right move, but when things you don't understand keep happening and you've been persecuted for generation after generation because of your color, you have a tendency to feel it's happening whenever things you don't understand happen to you, justified or not.

"But Doug is such a good quarterback and leads such a good enough life off the field that he can't be denied. It's only logical to go with him and logic is the name of this game."

Hill's thoughts were interrupted by Mike and Greg Pruitt, who wanted him to get ready for a team meeting.

"Don't worry about it," Hill said. "The meeting won't start until I get there. That's only logical. What can this team do without me?"