Nine months after he was nearly fired, Ed Garvey stood before more than 500 members of the National Football League Players Association last month and gave an impassioned speech about their quest for a new contract.

When he was finished, most of the players and their wives rose to give him a prolonged ovation.

As the applause grew, Garvey smiled and nodded. It was an emotional moment for him and for those who supported him through the struggling union's darkest times. It also was a moment that he occasionally thought would never occur, at least as long as he was the NFLPA's executive director.

Twice in the past five years, Garvey seriously has contemplated quitting. He was convinced that his departure was the only way the union could succeed in its on-going duel with NFL owners and Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Without him as a target, the league would be forced to focus on labor issues, not union leadership.

Garvey stayed on only after NFLPA executives and player representatives persuaded him that resignation would be a concession to the owners and a sign of union weakness.

The last time Garvey heard that argument was in June, after player representatives meeting in Chicago voted to rehire him. Nineteen supported Garvey, eight were against and there was one no-show.

It was hardly an overwhelming endorsement for the only executive director in NFLPA history, especially with negotiations on the new collective bargaining agreement scheduled to begin in seven months.

Brig Owens, one of Garvey's chief assistants: "Ed and his wife talked about him stepping down. He was hurt and it was an emotional time. We told him it would be a bad move, that we could be successful with him as our executive director. But he didn't want the owners to use what happened in Chicago against the union. When those same reps unanimously endorsed percentage of the gross as our No. 1 bargaining priority, he realized we were right. He stayed."

Memories of that day in Chicago undoubtedly were far from Garvey's mind amid the applause at the NFLPA convention. He knew the union membership had sent a different signal to the owners, that of a united union backing its leadership.

"Now maybe we can focus on the issues," he said later. "Maybe we can get the focus off Ed Garvey and onto the bargaining table, where it should be."

Ed Garvey was eating lunch in one of his favorite Washington restaurants recently. He seemed comfortable in these surroundings, where the owners and all the waiters know him. But his mood changed when he started discussing his relationship the last 11 years with NFL management.

"I've never experienced the emotion of hate, at least I don't think I have," he said. "But this barrage, it's so constant, it gets so personal. I'm fully aware that one of the foundations of labor negotiations is to try to separate the members from their leadership. But this has been going on from the day I was hired. And some of it gets so bad.

"The words they use, words like manifesto. I know what they are trying to do, they are trying to infer things: socialistic, communistic. They want to portray me as a radical, they want to seperate me from the pack so they don't have to discuss the issues."

One NFL general manager has pulled players and reporters aside to tell them that Garvey was a leader of the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) when he attended the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s. How can the players have a man like that as their leader, the executive asks?

"Just because I was at Wisconsin many years before the SDS came to power, that doesn't discourage such stuff," said Garvey, 40, who can accurately be described as a progressive Democrat. "It blows the owners' minds when they find out I was an ROTC officer at Wisconsin and that I was in the Army and worked closely with the CIA. 'He worked for the CIA?' I can imagine the looks on their faces."

Garvey attended Wisconsin's law school with an aim toward a political career. But after getting his law degree, he decided he could never ask for campaign contributions. Intrigued by labor law, he joined a prominent firm specializing in such litigation. That same firm handled work for the fledgling NFLPA. When the union needed an executive director in 1971, they hired Garvey. He was 30.

Guiding an apathetic union through dealings with the most public relations-oriented professional league in the country, he was forced to mature quickly. Unlike baseball, where the commissioner is weak and the owners divided, the NFL has strength at the top and united ownership, with the exception of Oakland's Al Davis. In 1974, when Garvey and the union struck, only half the players in the league belonged to the NFLPA. The strike failed miserably when many players ignored the picket lines. The union went without a contract until 1977.

Garvey's tenure has been marred by other problems, epecially that 1977 collective bargaining agreement, signed before the league agreed to a lucrative television contract.

The union had won free agency in the courts, but the system outlined in the contract did not capitalize on the legal ruling. There has been no wide-spread player movement in an era when basketball and baseball players have won enormous monetary and free agent concessions.

Nor has Garvey been able to keep his membership united. In 1977, then-NFLPA president Dick Anderson even conducted private negotiations with NFL officials, working out a contract without Garvey or other union leaders. The Chicago confrontation last June was another blow to his authority.

"You can go to every team in the league and find someone who doesn't like me," Garvey said. "I don't think that is unusual. In a union this large, you are going to have disagreements. But what happened in Chicago strengthed us. The player reps had to make a decision on their own, with no one else in the room. We grew up a lot because of that."

His critics within the union feel that without Garvey, the NFLPA would be able to change its image. "We need a change of pace, a different beat," said Buffalo's Reggie McKenzie. "What you see now is a union still being guided by the same guy, in the same manner, as we were in 1974.

"He shouldn't be dragging the union into his own personal quarrels."

McKenzie and others such as Len Hauss, the former Redskin and NFLPA president who led the Chicago uprising, and Seattle's Steve Largent question whether Garvey has become obsessed with the NFL. They feel his he has such an aversion to the wealthy that it is easy for him to ridicule the owners, and to continually stir the cauldron of mistrust between the union and the league hierarchy.

It is Hauss' contention that Garvey creates two issues: his leadership and the union's contract demands. Without him, Hauss says the resulting unity would allow "even Mickey Mouse" to be a successful executive director.

"Proposterous," Garvey said. "I'm just doing my job the best I can. That's always been the case. The owners have flaunted their power and have denied the players their equal share for too long. If my attempt to correct that situation is a personal obsession, then I guess I plead guilty. But what they have done to the players just isn't justified."

Garvey suffers in part because of comparisons to Marvin Miller, the highly successful head of the baseball union. Miller sent a telegram to the NFLPA convention, giving his encouragement and advising members to stay united. Still, Garvey, the volatile, shoot-from-the-hip hardliner, continues to be overshadowed by Miller, the cool, composed, crafty thinker.

Gene Klein, the San Diego Chargers owner, says the major difference between the men is that Miller is a labor negotiator, and Garvey views himself as a social reformer.

"If football had Marvin Miller," said agent Ed Keating, "they'd be in good shape. The man is a winner. He has proven he can do the job."

Garvey makes no apologies for his style. He has a sharp wit, which he uses to prod and irritate his perceived adversaries. And he has a quick temper that he has rarely been able to restrain. Unlike many public figures, when Garvey feels he has been treated wrongly, he will strike back quickly.

"I just don't think I should sit back idly and let inaccuracies or false statements go unanswered," he said. "It's just not my nature." But one result of his flareups is an uneasy relationship with the media, which the NFLPA considers to be pro-management, for the most part.

Like Miller and other union leaders, Garvey courts publicity. He believes that the most effective way to combat the league's public relations machine is for him to be a constant thorn in the owners' side. One day, Garvey is prematurely announcing terms of the NFL's new television contract. The league grumbles. Another, he is revealing confidential salary averages. The league files a formal grievance.

But his friends and associates maintain that Garvey's public image is not the one they see.

"I had heard all the things that are said about Ed," said Washington's Mark Murphy, a member of the NFLPA negotiating committee, "but I've found him to be a lot different. He's not out for himself, that's something that is used to turn the players against him. He's a good leader, he has a great sense of humor and he's really smart. No one should underestimate his intelligence.

"My feeling is, if you put Marvin Miller in Ed's spot, he'd have the same problems. There's much less turnover in baseball and more stability. Here, a lot of young players are influenced by their agents, who hate Ed. You ask those players why they don't like him and they'll tell you he is a wise guy and selfish but they never can be more specific, usually because they've never met him. A lot of them aren't around long enough to get to know anybody."

Detroit's Stan White, who has a law degree, once called for Garvey's resignation. He since has changed his mind.

"I had all the same complaints about Ed," White said. "I thought he was arrogant. In 1975, I said he should resign. I was saying we should either get behind him or get someone new. But I found out the problem wasn't Ed Garvey. It was the players not willing to pay the price to obtain what they wanted. That makes it easy for the owners to focus on Ed rather than the issues."

Brig Owens: "I've known him since the first day he came into the union. The one thing about him, he has a strong sense of making sure people are treated fairly. He's sensitive to feelings and he won't lie to you. He's tremendously honest and smart. The owners were never ready for someone that young and that sharp. He didn't show them what they thought was proper respect. He challenged them. They've never forgiven him."

Garvey is a passionate man. And his passion is his union. He remembers the days when he was a one-man staff on 24-hour call.

"The first contract with the league, I wasn't allowed to sit in the room and help negotiate it," he said. "The players would have to come outside and ask me questions and then go back in. We've come a long way since then. We've won all the important court cases, the players' lot has improved. I'm proud of that. But there is still a lot more to accomplish."

His emotions were running particularly strong last week when the union's bargaining committee decided to call off negotiations with the league. Garvey was upset in part because the NFL was supplying player phone numbers to the New York Times so that newspaper could survey the membership about its strike feelings.

To the NFL, his actions were vintage Garvey: implusive and unnecessary. But to Garvey, his actions were warranted. He is determined to make the league negotiate in what he feels is a fair manner. Every time the league fails to meet his standards, he and the union will stay away from the table.

In 1977, Garvey bought time for his union with a five-year contract that constantly is thrown in his face. In many ways, it is not a good contract. He admits as much when he says the league outsmarted the NFLPA by signing it before agreeing to the new television contract. But Garvey also claims the union might not be alive today without that document.

"We needed time to regroup and strengthen ourselves," he said. "We were at our lowest point, we had to buy time. It took us three years (from 1974 to 1977) to get a contract. We had to get united and get going in the right direction."

The contract gave the NFLPA the equivalent of a closed shop. Players had to pay dues whether they joined or not. Now, well over 95 percent are active union members. The union treasury, bolstered by a dramatic dues increase this season, is now strong, although there is no strike fund. Staff size has grown significantly, and the NFLPA has affliated with the AFL-CIO to gain the support of organized labor, something it did not have in 1974.

All that was lacking in preparation for bargaining over a new contract was an issue. Garvey found that when he decided to abandon the quest for improved free agency and concentrate on sharing in a percentage of the league's annual gross revenues.

"It's a great idea, and I wish I had thought of it," said Oakland's Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA president who possibly is a more militant labor man than Garvey. Upshaw, unlike Anderson in 1977, is not likely to begin private talks with management. "But it's Ed's idea. You have to give him credit."

But is it the wrong issue at the wrong time? Will Garvey get the union a glorious contract, or get himself fired?

It is the opinion of many NFL owners that Garvey is trying to make a major impact on the labor community by demanding a percentage of the gross, even though embracing a more liberal free agency system would have been a safer approach. Instead, Garvey is gambling.

A strike may be the only way to convince the owners that this is a changed union, that they should be negotiating seriously instead of talking about lockouts. Jack Donlan, the league's chief negotiator, has been warning management that he thinks the NFLPA is capable of closing down the NFL.

If the owners are listening, they have not taken the initiative, especially when they had an ideal opportunity early in the talks to present a specific counterproposal to percentage of the gross, even if such a presentation would have been contrary to accepted negotiating practices. Just saying that they believe the players deserve more money, as Donlan has admitted, isn't enough in most players' minds.

The owners may be misjudging union strength if they measure it by the number of big-name players who don't support percentage of the gross. Garvey never has had much sympathy for the high-salaried player, nor is he particularly concerned that percentage of the gross may damage the individual negotiating posture of some superstars. The demand is aimed at improving the lot of the majority of NFL players, many of whom believe the union is their only hope for increasing their salary.

"It's going to be tough for the superstar quarterback to pass if no one is there to block for him," said Upshaw, who admits "there isn't much concern within the union" for the plight of the big-name athlete. "If most of the team goes out and he stays in, how is he going to feel the next time he calls a play?"

For Garvey, who has lived through 11 years of deep frustration and occasional delight (the union has had significant success in suing the NFL over a number of issues), going to the bargaining table now will be a lot easier. For perhaps the first time as executive director, he has what he perceives to be overwhelming support of his union.

"If the owners still want to keep talking about Ed Garvey, that's their problem," White said. "The issue is percentage of the gross and a new contract. If they want to avoid a strike, if they want to get this settled, dumping on Ed Garvey is the wrong thing to do."