You are driving north, away from the city and its temptations, looking for Hazelden, the National Football League's chemical dependence treatment center.

The houses grow farther apart. Each one seems to have its own vegetable stand with corn and tomatoes for sale. The clouds hang low on the horizon and lily pads cling to the lakes along the road.

Forty-five miles north of the city, turn right onto a private road. The gravel discourages unwanted visitors, conveys the unmistakable impression that you have made a wrong turn.

A half-mile further, the road becomes paved. Rustic sign poles plunged in the ground remind you of a state park, welcome you with cheerful admonitions. "Watch out for pedestrians, they're nice people, too," says one. "Easy Does It," says another.

Despite the caring, cheery tone and the pastoral scenery, there is nothing easy about the route that brings most people to Hazelden, or the one they take when they leave. The Hazelden Foundation, a non-profit organization, has been treating chemically dependent people since 1949. The first year, there were seven patients. Last year, there were 1,700.

Addiction has become a big business. Hazelden is the largest publisher (400 books and brochures) and distributor of educational material on chemical dependency in the country. In the bookstore, you can buy Hazelden T-shirts, visors and book bags, along with toothpaste and deodorant.

As part of the settlement of the 1982 strike, Hazelden was designated the primary care center for NFL players with alcohol or drug problems. The agreement does not mean that every player with a problem will be treated here. Hazelden officials are working with the league to develop a network of 25 treatment centers, one designated by each team, where players can go for treatment.

If a player chooses to get treatment at any one of the league facilities, the cost is paid by his NFL insurance. A 28-day rehabilitation program at Hazelden costs about $3,150.

Because of laws protecting the confidentiality of patients, Hazelden officials decline to say how many players have received treatment or evaluation. Will Maloney, director of education and professional services, says 75 percent of the players entering assessment programs are determined to be chemically dependent, the rest "situational abusers." He declined to say how many players have gone through such assessment.

"We have no evidence and don't believe that the rate of usage is any higher among NFL players than others in that age group," Maloney said. "The choice of chemicals may vary. The ditch digger can't afford to snort cocaine. But the reason and the effects are the same . . . The most important thing to say is this is an endemic problem among American youth . . . You could almost call it an epidemic."

The NFL is one of about 65 businesses in Hazelden's employe assistance program. Maloney said the NFL's program is "more highly refined" than others, providing a 24-hour hot line, assessment and rehabilitation services and "after-care" guidance.

"They are under unique stress, traveling on a pretty fast track," Maloney said. "The deck is stacked a little more against them than those in other professions" in terms of maintaining sobriety.

In a way, Hazelden is a unique experience for an athlete. For once in his life, he is treated exactly like everyone else. "In a sense, they check their rank and titles at the admissions office," said Harold Conlow, director of rehabilitation services.

"And feel good about it," said Mike Shiks, a unit supervisor.

It is a mistake to go to Hazelden asking why. It does not deal in why. Does not ask whether the disjointed lifestyle, the huge salaries or the pressures of such a visible occupation are causing the problem.

"People want to know what is causing it," Conlow said. "They say, it's got to be the stress, the lifestyle. The response is no, it's not."

"I think everyone would like us to say the problem with athletes is this," Shiks said. "That it's because they weigh 285 pounds and have muscles up to here and go through all this stress. But we don't have any of that evidence at all. Historically, the problem often goes back before they were playing pro sports."

Fred Holmquist, a section manager, said that often the patient's first question is, " 'Why do I do this?' There's no answer. I use the example of the Freudian fire department. One guy says the fire started at the top of the house because the roof is burned out. The other guy says it started in the basement because there is an airplane engine there. They discuss it for hours while the house burns down. The important part is to deal with it right now."

At Hazelden, the idea is to stop asking why and start accepting yourself for who and what you are.

Carl Eller, a consultant to the NFL who was treated for a cocaine dependency at St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis, said the treatment philosophy at Hazelden is consistent with many centers that follow the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. He said Hazelden is a "good treatment center" but has philosophical differences with it.

"In my opinion, and I may be wrong, athletes are different," said the former Minnesota Viking.

"They (Hazelden) have to address those problems and stop saying athletes are just like everybody else. I doubt they'll have a lot of success until they do," he added later.

Once Hazelden was a country estate. The owner's wife was named Hazel, thus Hazel's den. There are 400 acres: a lake too mucky for swimming, tennis courts, walking trails and, at the center, a white house known as the Old Lodge, where portraits of the founders are hung and showed off to visitors.

But there is no mistaking the institutional nature of the place. Ignatia Hall, where patients are brought for evaluation, and withdrawal if necessary, has the cool, efficient look of modern medical practice. Some people come to Hazelden for a five-day assessment program, to find out if they have a chemical dependency. According to Darlene Cross, rehabilitation assessment program manager, "roughly 80 percent of those who go through assessment are referred to some type of treatment. I'd say roughly 40 percent end up here."

Once assessment is over, patients are transferred to the units--four male and two female, with an average of 22 beds in each--that will be their homes. There are double rooms and single rooms but only single beds. Visiting hours are 2 to 5 Sunday afternoons. "They discourage phone calls," a former patient said.

Each unit has a kitchen table and living room area, where counselors say the nitty-gritty healing happens when the patients are left alone. The group tells you that you are no different from anyone else with an addiction and refuses to let you deny the fact of your dependency.

Units include cocaine abusers and alcoholics. Hazelden treats the dependency, not the drug. The goal is total abstinence of all chemicals. Conlow said last year's followup studies show that 64 percent of those who complete the program abstain for one year. He says 87 percent of the patients completed the rehabilitation program last year.

The day is structured to provide structure for lives that lack it: three meals (family style), three lectures (group dynamics, spiritual awakening), two group sessions. Everyone has a task (theraputic duty assignment), even if it's just emptying ashtrays. The idea is to teach discipline and responsibility, to allow for a sense of accomplishment.

"It's like basic training in living," said a former patient.

Randy Holloway of the Vikings, who went through Hazelden in 1982, told the St. Paul Pioneer when he left, "At first, I wasn't getting much out of it. Then I caught fire. The counselors helped me and my peers helped me . . . see things I couldn't see. You live 18 hours a day with them, 24 men in a unit. You live with them, eat with them, evaluate your life story.

"I was really indebted to them. You don't just go up there with the idea you're going to dry out. That's not it. It's finding a basis to learn how to deal with these things."

Confrontation is the essence of treatment. There comes a time when each patient finds himself on what they used to call the hot seat. Now they call it peer evaluation.

"You sit in a group of 20 to 25 guys and everybody lets you know you're full of it," said a former patient.

What makes it work? "I guess the phenomenon is surrender," he said.

You see them walking together along the halls in jeans and T-shirts. Their pain is distant. On the radio, as you leave, there is that oldie but goldie: "Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober. Leave me alone and let me go home, let me go home and start over."