In the long history of Howard University football, a 22-21 victory over Virginia State in the 2-8 autumn of 1984 might seem insignificant, but in the resurrection of the Bison's program, that might turn out to have been one of its most important victories.

Howard began that season, the first under Coach Willie Jeffries, 0-4. Worse yet, many of Jeffries' highly recruited freshmen could not believe the overall team attitude in which, it appeared, losing was perfectly acceptable.

"When I came here, guys were playing for two quarters and gave up. I couldn't understand it," said senior tailback Harvey Reed, who puzzled friends and family by choosing Howard over Michigan, Florida and Iowa State. "I wanted to go home after the third game. I was one phone call away from leaving -- and I made the phone call."

The call, to Reed's mother, elicited a deal in which Reed would stick it out for two more games. "She said I chose Howard and I should stay and do the right thing," Reed recalled, "I told her, 'Going home would be the right thing.' "

That fifth game, however, was the last-minute victory over Virginia State. Reed stayed.

With Jeffries gradually cleansing the program of malcontents, Reed began to take over as a leader in performance and inspiration. Last Saturday, he rushed for 260 yards and three touchdowns in Howard's 45-0 victory over Newberry in its opener. It was the eighth consecutive time Reed has rushed for 100 yards or more. Not so coincidentally, it was Howard's school-record eighth straight victory.

Tonight, Reed will return to Florida as Howard meets Bethune-Cookman (1-1) in a 7 p.m. game at Welch Memorial Stadium in Daytona Beach. For Reed and 27 other Howard players from that state, the game has extra importance. Not only will they be playing a rare game in front of family and friends, but Howard has beaten Bethune-Cookman only once in seven tries. If the Bison again leave Florida without a victory, it will greatly diminish their chances of living up to their billing of preseason favorite in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Reed, who finished fifth in Division I-AA last season with 138.6 yards rushing per game, began living up to his preseason accolades as one of the nation's top I-AA runing backs. His performance against Newberry, although he played only about two full quarters and had two front teeth loosened by an elbow in the first period, gave Reed 2,890 career rushing yards. He needs 235 to break the MEAC record of 3,124 set by Delaware State's Gene Lake.

If Reed stays healthy and again averages 138.6 over the next nine games, he would become the No. 6 all-time rusher in Division I-AA since the NCAA created the division in 1977. If he should average 176.1 yards over the remainder of the season, he would pass Cedric Minter of Boise State as the No. 2 all-time rusher.

Attaining those figures will be difficult. Every Howard opponent will attempt to prevent Reed from getting outside for the option pitch from quarterback Lee DeBose.

"The defensive key for us is that we have to stop Harvey Reed," said Larry Little, the former Miami Dolphins player who is Bethune-Cookman's coach. "But it will not be easy because he has a good blocker in that fullback {Ronnie} Epps and Howard's size on the line will make it look like Goliath blocking against David."