The American University president, an astronomer, saw Michael Brady on campus the other day and said, "Well, Mike, congratulations. You're an absolute star."

A man of science, Richard Berendzen never much cared about sports. He can remember his days at Harvard and the time the Crimson took on Yale in a football game -- "The Game," as it's known in those parts. At tailgate parties before the opening kickoff, some of the spectators sucked on bottles of champagne and cheered in Latin. And where was Berendzen? Holed up in the library, as always, trying to make sense of the cosmos. Ever since his childhood in Texas, he was like that: wondered at the distance and luminosity of stars and couldn't know enough about their great, heavenly fury.

Michael Brady is the leader of the most successful collection of athletes in the school's history. What he does is play soccer, and well enough to have helped the Eagles work their way into the NCAA final Saturday against UCLA. For the first time, AU has fielded a team in position to contend for a national championship, this one to be decided at the Kingdome in Seattle. On the Ward Circle campus, Leonard and McDowell halls have been dressed with banners celebrating the team's triumph over Hartwick College last week. Hanging from a window at Anderson South Wing, on that side of campus not known to fuss over the exploits of big-hearted jocks, a white sheet asks the Eagles to please kick a particular part of UCLA's anatomy.

Brady was sitting on a wooden bench, looking at that sign, when he said, "People certainly are a little nicer now than usual."

Even the old-timers say this is the biggest thing to happen to the athletic program. There is a new kind of hero at AU these days, and he's not driving a foreign sports car and wearing punked-out designer clothes. Bob Frailey, the athletic director, decided to hire Coach Pete Mehlert 14 years ago for no particular reason, he said, except that he liked what he saw and heard. And because Mehlert, who'd been earning his keep by punching a food store register, was young and hungry.

"You coach here," Frailey said, "and you become the father and mother to your boys, and the priest, too. You even hear confession."

Some people at AU like to compare Mehlert's squad to the U.S. hockey team that upset the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. They see a relatively small school taking on a huge state university with an enormously successful athletic program, one that already has won 53 NCAA titles. They see an underdog squad of foreign and U.S. athletes competing against the Bruins' all-California team. Even Berendzen, who likes to look at soccer as a "cerebral sport," has canceled seven weekend engagements to make the trip to Seattle and witness "the contest between our David and their Goliath," as he puts it.

Others say it's a lot like the days of Kermit Washington. In his final regular-season game for AU, against one of John Thompson's first Georgetown teams, Washington scored 40 points and had 28 rebounds to end his senior year averaging 20 points and 20 rebounds. They played the game at the Fort Myer Ceremonial Hall, before about 4,000 people. Frailey, who graduated from AU in 1949, said he'd never seen anything like it until the NCAA semifinal game against Hartwick last week. That day in 1973, he had to lock the bathroom windows to keep people from sneaking in. "It was crazy," he said. "People, people everywhere, some even hanging from the rafters."

In the late 1950s, Wil Jones brought a lot of excitement to the school, but even his years on the basketball court did not produce a national champion. The truth is, American lacks any great athletic tradition to speak of. The football team lasted only 16 years -- from 1926 to 1941 -- and had only two winning seasons. Football clubs once prospered on campus, but that died in the 1970s. Sports publicist Terry Cornwell keeps what little information he has on those football years in a single folder. Even he admits that it's as if those days on the pasture were not worth remembering.

There were a couple of world class track and field stars who competed at AU in the late 1960s, and a baseball player who went on to play for the world champion Kansas City Royals. But their individual efforts were never enough to carry an AU team to any dramatic conclusion. The sports history of the school has given the soccer team's triumph even more significance.

Said Berendzen, "College athletics ought to be about student-scholars, and not a group of people admitted with special perks so that they can entertain the masses . . . We're not so obsessed here. We've bought no one. We haven't given them cars or apartments or whatever else. We recruited them as we would any other students and we treat them that way."

Back in 1963, something of great historical significance did happen on AU's athletic field, but it had nothing to do with playing games. What it had to do with was nuclear weapons. Not long before he died, President John F. Kennedy delivered a commencement address to a crowd of about 9,000 and a worldwide audience. Ace Spalding, who was then working as a university public relations director in charge of special events, said the Kennedy speech was "my baby to handle."

"The electricity that speech generated," he said, "I looked on in utter amazement. It rocked everybody."

It happened on an old kicked-up field at the back of the campus, the same field where 5,300 gathered last week to watch the victory over Hartwick. At one end of the field, on a short climb that gives way to a parking lot and an immense radio tower, an historical marker memorializes Kennedy's June 10, 1963, address, which contained policy declarations that led to the treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water. From a distance, the monument looks more like a drainage grate than a spot where history was made. Sometimes big things happen at little places.

"You'd like to say when you've got it, flaunt it," Frailey said. "But we really don't know how to flaunt it."

Pete Mehlert, anyone will tell you, is a self-deprecating man. He coaches one of the best two soccer teams in the country, but he also teaches tennis and volleyball classes. He said he never cuts players, "at least not officially." They walk on and walk off, or they hang around all season long and practice for the fun of it. "You keep a player, you keep a fan," he said. "And we can never have enough fans."

The school president says Mehlert has got to be one of the best coaches in the country. Then he admits he doesn't really know much about that kind of thing. What he does know is a star when he sees one.

"In the past, soccer was one of our nominal programs," Berendzen said. "It was no different than lacrosse, say, or golf. Now it's become much more important than all that. How important is it? Very. It touches a nerve of pride."