By noon, 40 players had checked into the hotel and been fitted for uniforms and helmets. That's when Brig Owens, who is coordinating the NFL Players Association all-star games, could relax for perhaps the first time in three weeks.

"Now I guess people will believe it when we say there will be a game Sunday," Owens said. "I'm sure no one thought the players would actually show up and be willing to play."

Barring last-minute legal efforts by the league, the first NFLPA all-star game apparently will be played at 4 p.m. Sunday in RFK Stadium. It's probably a tribute to Owens' persistence that the event hasn't become a major embarrassment to the union.

Owens and his staff have been scrambling daily to fill the 40-man rosters, replacing players who either have declined to participate or who have been barred by the courts.

Despite the union's efforts, it's apparent that not every player in the two divisions involved in the opening game jumped at the chance to suit up. To complete the NFC East team, Owens had to dip into the NFC Central Division for 11 players, mostly from Tampa Bay and Detroit.

The NFLPA still was contacting players yesterday. The union announced partial rosters with 36 players on the NFC East and 35 on the AFC East. From the initial list of 80 players released Oct. 3, only 14 remain on the NFC squad and 26 on the AFC. But Owens said some of the original players still might show up today.

Four of the nine Redskins on the first roster have been replaced: quarterback Joe Theismann, receiver Art Monk, defensive tackle Dave Butz and kick returner Mike Nelms. Joining holdovers John Riggins, George Starke, Jeff Bostic, Mark May and Mark Moseley are receiver Charlie Brown, running back Clarence Harmon, safety Tony Peters and tackle Joe Jacoby.

Robert Newhouse, the Cowboys' player representative and only selectee originally accepting, was not on yesterday's roster; nine Eagles have also dropped off. Prominent names now missing were New England's John Hannah, New York Jets' Mark Gastineau, Philadelphia's Harold Carmichael, Wilbert Montgomery and Carl Hairston, and New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor and Dave Jennings.

Owens said that quarterback Richard Todd of the Jets still hadn't said whether he would play, but he expected other Jets such as Freeman McNeil and Marty Lyons to appear. Seven Cardinals, including quarterback Neil Lomax and running back Ottis Anderson, can't play because of a temporary restraining order.

The result is a mixed bag of top-rate players and second-stringers. Steve Grogan, a second-stringer with New England, is the only AFC East quarterback, while the NFC East is represented by two NFC Central quarterbacks, Chicago's Bob Avellini and Detroit's Gary Danielson. But Owens and NFLPA President Gene Upshaw both said they expect fans to turn out in large numbers to watch the game, even with ticket prices at $15 and down.

"The players will provide a quality game for the fans out there," Owens said. "This is a chance for fans to see a game after the strike lasting so long . . . I'd be disappointed if only 15,000, for example, showed up."

Upshaw: "We have to accept the excuses the players gave for not coming here. We have to take their word for it, that they wanted to play but for some reason couldn't. This is not any indication that there isn't solidarity within the union."

Many of the players who did sign up echoed Grogan's feelings. "It's a paycheck ($3,000 to winners, $2,500 to losers) and it's a chance to play in a game," he said. "You always think about getting hurt but we have adequate insurance coverage. You can't really worry about it.

"Anyway, I lost my starting position (on the Patriots) so this is a way for me to get a chance to show what I can do. I certainly think we can produce a game equal to the quality of what they are seeing now on television every Sunday."

According to a spokesman for Turner Broadcasting Co., which is paying the NFLPA $500,000 for every game televised, the first two games (the second will be played Monday in Los Angeles) have been sold to 90 commercial stations. The company hopes to have more than 100 by kickoff Sunday, which the spokesman said would mean the game would be shown in 80 to 90 percent of the country.