Ed Garvey will not have National Football League owners and commissioner Pete Rozelle to kick around any more. Voluntarily, the most controversial and cussed union leader in sports is about to resign as executive director of the NFL Players Association. High-stakes politics or whatever career he chooses, at age 43, surely will seem like taking the rest of his life off.

In 12 years, Garvey has won some historic athletic battles and lost at least one war; he has whipped some of the most massive egos and dedicated soloists into a largly united and rather potent force; because he always asked for so much, what he achieved tends to be undervalued.

"We won't know what to do now in player rep meetings," the Redskins' Mark Murphy joked. "It seems like all we were doing the last two years was deciding whether Ed should come back or not."

A month after being asked to return again, by a vote of 21-7, Garvey has decided not to. The only possible instant judgment of his generalship was that he made a dramatic impact on how athletes are perceived by the public and treated by management.

"The jury is still out on what was done by a lot of us," said Bill Curry, who helped hire Garvey as the NFLPA's first executive director in 1971 and later served as president. "It'll be out for maybe another 20 years. There's so much yet to be learned. So much money has been involved, so much acrimony this last decade plus a year or two."

Before Garvey, the players were loosely organized and pretty much went helmet in hand to the owners. Sassing and harassing, he drew attention to himself and then to his union. And then to the issues his union raised before the owners.

"I've never seen a person with a quicker mind--or tongue," Murphy said. "It seemed like he was at a different speed than everyone else. That's one reason management hated him so. He really could embarrass a person. When the owners would bring up, say, gambling, he would remind them of the double standard, that (Eagles owner) Leonard Tose had admitted losing something like $2 million gambling."

Early on, Garvey was the pale-complected, egg-headish pest stinging the perpetually perfect Rozelle. To anyone who wondered how he dared be so brazen as to attack some cornerstones of the NFL (one team having to compensate another for signing a free agent, the draft) without experiencing so much as a single forearm shiver, he snapped: "I've played as much football as the commissioner."

When the issue was free agency ("No Freedom; No Football") in the early '70s, Jim Finks was involved in negotiations as a management troubleshooter. One of the most astute general managers in the NFL, Finks had left the Minnesota Vikings and was entertaining offers from other teams. So when he objected to the players' position Garvey countered:

"All we want, Jim, is the same right you have."

What Garvey did in the courts belittled what he did at the bargaining table. That's why some see him as a brilliant player who breaks tackle after tackle scurrying downfield, only to blunder just shy of the goal line. Garvey's guys won freedom; Marvin Miller's have it.

"But we're so different from baseball," Murphy argues. "Our careers are so much shorter. And the NFL owners really act as one. I may be wrong, but I believe history will prove that Ed did an excellent job. Every former player who got out, say, around '73 or '74 says: 'Gee, you guys have done great.' "

Not quite everyone, Mark.

Curry, now the head coach at Georgia Tech, split with Garvey because he thought the union was getting too involved in sports other than football.

"But I've never questioned his integrity or diligence," Curry emphasized. "And when we chose him, we needed strong advice. Ed always took a position, never was one to see which way the parade was going and run in front of it. He took the ball and ran with it."

His last run was with a concept called percentage of the gross. Mostly, the public saw it the way the owners wanted, as a way for players to grab an unfair amount of the loot without taking a fair share of the risk. Several months later, that became the foundation of the pro basketball contract. This time, astonishingly, it had been proposed by management.

This will irritate liberal Democrat Garvey some, but the best way to evaluate him is to ask a Reagan question of his ever-changing 1,500-member constituency: are you better off now than before he took charge?

Murphy shouts yes. In his six years in the NFL, the minimum wage has doubled, from $20,000 to $40,000. And severance pay allows a veteran the chance to choose a job he enjoys instead of the first one available once football has ended.

"Ed's often at his funniest during the worst of times," said Murphy. "I remember wondering how he could tolerate being called all those names: Commie and socialist, that sort of thing. He said: 'I'm so upset I've taken my statue of Lenin off the dresser.' "

Once in a crowd of owners and reporters at an NFL party, a man tapped him on the shoulder and asked: "Are you Ed Garvey?"

Garvey turned and replied, in a smart-aleck tone: "What are you, a process server?"

"Yes," the fellow said and delivered the subpoena.

The essence of bargaining is to shout about one issue and settle for another. Day after day, week after week before and during the 57-day strike last season, Garvey said percentage of gross was "etched in stone." To reinforce that, a large stone with a percentage sign chiseled in it stood near his desk.

On the other side of the stone, away from public view, was taped a $1 bill.