They spend much of their adult lives clinging to the skills of childhood, those rare privileges that permit one to play at a job instead of having to grow up. But athletes forced from their jobs by age or injury suffer a special agony when it's time to give up the games.

"I keep thinking I ought to be there," said Dick Bosman, who used to pitch for the Washington Senators.

Their lives are a fast-forward version of the way the rest of the world spins. They are finished in a handful of seasons rather than several decades. Sometimes they pretend, aloud and to themselves, that the merry-go-round of professional athletics is an endless free ride, a one-way trip to success, status and security. But when a final reach for the brass ring produces only a pink slip, the athlete meets his most frustrating opponent.

"You may have the intelligence to know when to quit, but you always want to continue," said Sonny Jurgensen, the former Washington Redskins quarterback. "You don't ever face up to retiring."

For an athlete, the end always arrives too soon. There is no graceful fadeout or mandatory age at which he gets a gold watch and the gate. He is already "too old" at the time dressed-for-success executives are first opening their IRAs. He works frantically to maintain the edge on his game, but half the distance takes him twice as long.

"A lot of guys think it'll never end," said Bosman. "How realistic is that? A game influenced by the body! You could throw a curve ball and blow an elbow out. And nobody's going to wait two or three years till that arm comes back."

Bosman works for a car dealership in Virginia, and is pitching coach at Georgetown University. But in spite of being on "the outside" since 1977, and carefully preparing for his retirement, Bosman admits he still finds it tough to watch or to listen to a game.

For many athletes, the question "now what?" is answered by severe financial and personal strain, unless they have given serious attention to the day they can no longer play to work.

"If you take the fact that a guy's out of football, he's cut off from that big salary and nobody recognizes him anymore, you see what kind of adjustment he's got to make," said Bobby Mitchell, now assistant general manager of the Redskins. Mitchell retired as a player in 1969, but jokes that, "Some people think I'm still playing and come up to me even now."

These days, Mitchell attempts to guide others.

"When a guy makes our team, I talk to him about 'later'," said Mitchell. "And that's difficult. He's just signed for the big bucks. He's bought a Mercedes. He doesn't want to hear you telling him to go to school or to hook up with some company in the offseason.

"Yet he's got to realize his only chance to grow is to keep up with his buddy who's not playing football. Otherwise, he'll be left behind in so many ways."

Sometimes, the athlete who stays on the fringes of his sport instead of walking away has an edge on adjustment to the real world. He can prolong the make-believe a few seasons.

"No way could Brooks Robinson have a 9-to-5 job," said Robinson, who played 22 years for the Baltimore Orioles. He has been out of baseball four years now, but says that doing television commentary on Orioles games has filled a gap.

"When you retire, what you miss most is the camaraderie," he said. "The best thing was always putting on your uniform to play, but at least now I'm still in the game. It wouldn't be the same without baseball."

Like Robinson, Phil Esposito is a broadcaster for his former team. He retired last year, after 18 seasons in the NHL, and works behind the microphone for New York Rangers games. But Esposito finds his "closeness to the game makes it (retirement) so much worse."

"At first, I thought it would help," he said. "But you see everything, and wonder why people aren't doing what you know they should on the ice. If I could get away from it, I probably wouldn't even go to games; I'd watch on TV."

Esposito openly longs to be an NHL coach when he grows up. Meanwhile, he has started the Phil Esposito Foundation, an organization to help retired players who have fallen on hard times.

"We run seminars for guys still in the game, to prepare them for what they want to do when hockey is over," he said. "We'd like to make sure they know what's out there. Sure, some players think about it a little. But in most ways, it's no different than it was 10 years ago. Nobody really knows when to leave, and nobody is ready to deal with it when they do."

Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers was ready to get out because he didn't want to compromise what he thought of his own abilities.

"I considered leaving for a year before I did it," he said. "As of now, I've been successfully retired for more than two months. It hasn't hit home yet."

Greene has opened a restaurant in Dallas and is working for Coca-Cola. His role in the company's award-winning commercial (Mean Joe tosses jersey to kid in exchange for a Coke) has made him a fixture in the Coke family, just as he was a mainstay in Pittsburgh.

Greene left willingly, accepting what he perceived as diminishings return on his shiny talents. Others kick and scream and insist they could play at least one more season.

Jurgensen retired in 1974, yet even today he is a touch bitter. "I was forced out. (George) Allen forced me to retire," he said. When would Jurgensen have quit on his own? "I don't think that day has arrived yet," he said, half-seriously.

Jurgensen now works for WDVM-TV-9. It is a job he enjoys, and had dabbled in while he played football. He said he can put retirement into perspective better from the distance of eight years.

"Retiring is pyschological. It's that football family you're with, day in, day out, while you're playing. You don't miss the game. You miss the people."

Gordie Howe never thought about doing much else besides playing hockey, which he did for 26 NHL seasons. He has quit, it seems, more often than most teams drink from the Stanley Cup. Now 54, he is two years into his final retirement.

"It's hard to believe I really am out of hockey," he said, voicing the thought of opposing players who collected hundreds of dents from Howe's elbows. He came back from retirement before because "it wasn't any fun. But the nice thing about now is, I have so many things to do. I cherish my idle time."

Howe is a singular exception to the retirement problem. His extraordinarily long career afforded him plenty of time to ponder the postgame years.

Carl Eller thought he had planned well for life after football. A longtime Minnesota Viking, he retired in 1979 after one last season with Seattle. Eller had readied himself by investing in a retail liquor store, some fast-developing property and an apartment building.

"If all of those had worked out, everything would have been great, but when I ran into a bind with one, I found I was overextended financially," he said. "And I couldn't salvage anything."

Eller felt like a failure. He had no one to turn to for help. "I had decided early in my career to make all my own decisions, and now I couldn't get any assistance," he said. "I really didn't cope with the problem. Instead, I used drugs to escape."

Out of football, money and confidence, Eller remained involved with drugs until, he says, "I just realized I had to get on with my life. I had to turn things around."

Eller's drug problem led him to organize a program, supported but not sponsored by the NFL, designed to help athletes avoid a retirement gone wrong. Eller visits individual teams and talks with players about the pitfalls of retiring--business, marital adjustments, drugs that block out distasteful reality.

"The intention is to keep the athlete from being so vulnerable to all of that," Eller said. "Because the athlete has made the sacrifice to develop himself physically, he may not have enough on the other side to insure financial security. Sometimes, the price for becoming a successful athlete is too high."

Sometimes, that price might cause even a star athlete to fumble repeatedly throughout his retirement. Bob Hayes, an Olympic runner turned Dallas Cowboy, left football in 1975. Three years later, he was arrested for trafficking in cocaine and Quaaludes. He had served 10 months of a five-year jail term when he was paroled in 1980.

Until about six weeks ago, Hayes had worked for a real estate development company. Recently, he was arrested in Dallas on a drunk-driving charge.

Jesse Phillips retired from pro football in 1978. Last April, he calmly walked into a Reno jewelry store armed with a gun. After shouting death threats to the store's four employes, he tied them up, stuffed a half-dozen diamond rings and gold chains into his pockets and fled. Although Phillips had a history of defaulted bank loans and other financial woes, even he could not explain why he robbed a jewelry store.

Phillips' former teammate, Bob Trumpy, blames the game. "Football treats players like cans of soda," he told the Globe. "They use up the inside and throw away the outside . . . there are no opponents in the private sector and the adjustment is near impossible. For 20 years, all you've known is that peak on the weekend . . . maybe Jess needed some excitement; maybe the robbery was his Sunday."