When Steve Atkins was barreling over people while gaining 1,261 yards as Maryland's tailback in 1978, one of the many pro football observers who came to Byrd Stadium to observe him was the highly ambitious coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Dick Vermeil.

Head coaches in the National Football League rarely have time to do their own scouting, but to a workaholic like Vermeil, then in the second season of his rebuilding program in Philadelphia, the 125-mile drive was worth the effort.

"We're always interested in big, quick backs," the coach recalled this week after signing Atkins to help fill the void created when Perry Harrington fractured his leg.

"I was very impressed with Steve then and we wanted to draft him in the second round," Vermeil continued. "Unfortunately, Green Bay picked him ahead of us. But I've never forgotten him."

As soon as Atkins was released by Green Bay late last week, Vermeil was on the phone. Now the 6-foot, 220-pound fullback is working for the Eagles at last, and has hopes of getting in for a few plays in the Monday night game against visiting Atlanta.

"This is a great opportunity for me," Atkins said yesterday. "I've only been here a day and already I feel wanted, like I'm part of the team.

"I sat down and had a talk with the coach today and he really made me feel like part of his program. He told me he was trying to get hold of me for days. It really makes you feel good when you know someone has gone out and made an effort to get you."

The fullback position has been a trouble spot for the Eagles this season: Leroy Harris suffered a double fracture of his arm during the exhibition season and is not expected to play this year, Harrington now is out with a broken leg and Mickey Fitzgerald, a rookie from Virginia Tech, flunked his one-week test.

However, the Eagles have signed Booker Russell, a three-year veteran released by San Diego in August, and Atkins will be competing with him for a job.

After setting six school records at Maryland, including 32 career touchdowns and the longest run from scrimmage (98 yards against Clemson in '78), after gaining more than 2,000 yards and scoring twice in the East-West Shrine game, Atkins was rated one of the top running backs in the '79 draft.

He was selected early in the second round by the Packers, after they had picked Georgia Tech running star Eddie Lee Ivery in the first round.

Although Zeke Bratkowski, the offensive backfield coach, called him "a freight train with shoes on," Atkins never developed into the type of player the Packers were looking for.

Playing in a reserve role as a rookie, he broke away for a 60-yard scoring burst against New Orleans and was averaging 5.7 yards on 42 carries when he tore up his knee and was sidelined for the season.

Atkins started three times last season, but played in only nine games and carried the ball just 67 times for 206 yards (3.0). This year, he enjoyed an excellent exhibition season but was shunted to the bench when the games counted. In the first four games, he carried the ball only 11 times for 12 yards and, when Los Angeles picked up his fumble and ran it in for a touchdown two weeks ago, he felt his days were numbered.

"It was a very difficult situation at Green Bay," said Atkins, who lives in Kettering, Md., near Capital Centre.