MADISON, WIS. -- The days when Ed Garvey went out in public surrounded by a burly phalanx of professional football players are over. There are no more telephoned death threats or hate mail, and the scathing attacks regularly directed at him from so many members of the National Football League establishment have stopped.

For 13 years, until he resigned in 1983 to seek work in the public sector, Garvey was executive director of the NFL Players Association, a man with a union label known for his contentious demeanor, rapier wit and propensity to infuriate Pete Rozelle and the lords of football, not to mention some of the very players he was representing.

Garvey never shied away from a public debate, in fact relished the give-and-take with anyone who ever took him on. He once accused the league of being "a monument to racism" and blamed Rozelle for helping perpetuate discrimination. He had the whole of Texas in an uproar when he said he was glad he wasn't at Pearl Harbor with Roger Staubach after the Cowboys quarterback, naval officer and Vietnam veteran decided to cross a picket line during a strike in 1974.

His proposal for the NFL to give 55 percent of its gross to the players was widely criticized as a wild-eyed, radical approach by the league's hierarchy during a bitter 1982 strike. Yet shortly thereafter NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien negotiated a settlement with pro basketball players based largely on Garvey's proposal. That agreement has been hailed as the key factor in the NBA's rise in popularity over the last decade.

"It's funny," Garvey was saying recently, sitting in the modest office he leases a block from Wisconsin's state capitol. "Tex Schramm once said I was a sarcastic, egotistical punk. I was seething when I got home that night, but Betty {Garvey's wife} had the perfect answer. She said to me, 'I didn't know Tex knew you that well.'

"I never took any of that stuff very personally. The only time I really got bothered was when the players would say things. I understood that, there was always some frustration, but we did some great things. I'm very proud of that."

And now, Ed Garvey, 50, is trying to do more great things. He is teaching sports law at the University of Wisconsin law school and working to clean up what he describes as "just the incredibly scandalous agent business."

He has a consulting firm and serves as an adviser and attorney to several unions, though he is almost totally divorced from the NFLPA. He still serves on the joint six-man NFL-NFLPA Retirement Board, deciding on compensation and pension cases for former players. As such, he can still be a thorn in the side of the NFL.

A federal judge in Baltimore in July ruled favorably on a suit instigated by Garvey in 1986 when the three NFL representatives to the board announced the league had decided to withhold pension contributions, claiming the plan was overfunded. The judge declared otherwise and last month ordered the NFL to pay more than $29 million to cover the missed payments and interest on back contributions. Because of Garvey's involvement in the case, there are some people who believe he is still the power behind the NFLPA, pulling strings of his hand-picked successor, Gene Upshaw.

Garvey says nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, he has publicly criticized NFLPA leadership for decertifying the union and pursuing free agency for all players as one of its primary missions. 'I'm Out of It Now'

"It's no great secret that we disagree," Garvey said. "Gene and I will always be friends, but I think some people there {in the NFLPA} decided that Garvey and Mark Murphy {a former Redskins safety and union official} and people like us who were at odds with the current thinking were no longer in their plans. So I go about my business, and they go about theirs.

"I have not gone out of my way to knock what they're doing. I'm out of it now. My feeling is that in pro sports the superstars will always be taken care of. My concern was always with the majority of players who were not making that kind of money. I spent 13 years with the union . . . getting offensive linemen a decent wage and benefits. It wasn't to get Joe Montana a bigger contract. He can do that for himself. But the story is still being written. What they've done {decertification} could have an excellent result and I could be proven wrong."

Said Upshaw: "We definitely have a disagreement on this. In fact, when I decided to do it {decertify}, I called Ed as a courtesy to let him know exactly what we were doing. The funny thing is, a couple months before that he had actually said he thought decertification was the way to go. Once I did it, he said he disagreed.

"But I didn't check with Ed Garvey. When I took this job, I always had these ghosts around. Ed Garvey, Al Davis, people always said they were telling me what to do. Anyone who knows me knows I can make up my own mind. My job is to do what the players want me to do. Anyone who doesn't agree with that, too bad."

Upshaw said he appreciates what Garvey did for the organization, and within the NFLPA people still speak respectfully of his contributions. But as one official said: "With Ed, you're either a follower and raise your flag with him or you don't exist. Our feeling is that the way we're going is the right way. In 1989, the players actually got 60 percent of the gross. Thanks to the Plan B craziness, that group of guys is getting a disproportionate amount of money, and that's great. But we think all the players should have the same right on free agency. That's where we disagree with Ed."

There also is a new style of leadership in the NFLPA. "I think the players are now more in control than ever before," said Brig Owens, one of Garvey's closest allies when he served as player representative for the Redskins for most of the 1970s. "Gene does what the players ask him to do."

Garvey grew up in Wisconsin and became president of the student body at the University of Wisconsin, where he lobbied succesfully to have the school's mandatory ROTC program made voluntary. He won that war, then joined ROTC himself and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the military police when he graduated in 1961. He served two years in the Army as an intelligence officer, then went back to Madison to earn a law degree.

His first job was with the Minneapolis law firm hired in the late 1960s by the fledgling NFLPA to handle its affairs. Garvey was part of the union's negotiating team in 1970 when the players struck for two days, and shortly thereafter he was named the union's executive director.

When John Mackey, the Baltimore Colts tight end and president of the NFLPA, introduced Garvey to the membership in 1970, he said, "Ed Garvey may be an SOB, but he's our SOB."

"He was a guy that if things were not right, he'd let you know about it," Owens said. " . . . He had tremendous insight, and he was not afraid to challenge the system. Hell, in the early '60s, we were not even allowed to bring legal counsel into the room when we met with management. They were not used to having anyone like Ed around.

"Ed criticized the system at a time when that wasn't being done. He threatened to disrupt the game and the nation's leisure time, and people just didn't like him, including some of our players and the general public. Sure there were death threats. There were times when we wouldn't let Ed go anywhere by himself. He once had a little sports car, a Fiat I think. He loved that little car, but we made him get rid of it because somebody once tried to run him off the road. A lot of people definitely did not like Ed Garvey."

Garvey and Rozelle were constantly at odds, though Garvey says now "that was his job, I had mine. No, we were not friends." He says he has great respect for the current commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, who represented the NFL in many of its legal skirmishes with the NFLPA during Garvey's tenure.

"I saw Paul at a hearing in Washington," Garvey said, mischief in his voice. "I told him he owed me his job because I called all the owners and told everyone I was pushing Jim Finks.

"But really, I've been disappointed that Paul hasn't settled things with the players. I thought there was more Larry O'Brien in him, but we'll have to see. I would have thought that would be his first priority. But he's very bright, very capable. I like him."

The 1982 settlement was a landmark agreement for the players, particularly in the area of pension benefits, that was hammered out mainly between Garvey and Dan Rooney, president of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When it was attained, Garvey began thinking about his future out of football. The Lost Elections

Soon Garvey was offered a position as an assistant attorney general in Wisconsin by then governor Bronson LaFollette, and he accepted. At the time, the general assumption was that Garvey was interested in seeking elected office. Three years later, he barely missed unseating Republican incumbent Robert Kasten Jr. in a contentious campaign for U.S. senator that included allegations in a television commercial that $750,000 in union funds had disappeared. Garvey sued for libel; Kasten repudiated the charges.

The campaign also was memorable for another reason. Art Rooney, the late owner of the Steelers, contributed $500 to Garvey's cause, and told him if he had lived in Wisconsin he would have worked to get him elected.

In 1988, there was a primary run to fill the seat of retiring senator William Proxmire, but Garvey, running a shoestring campaign, finished a distant third in a crowded field and failed to secure the nomination. He says now he has no interest in politics, mostly because of the enormous burden of raising funds. Instead, he's co-chairing a national group pushing for public campaign financing "so that elections are real elections, not just a test of which rich guy can raise the most money."

His other primary passion these days involves cleaning up the sports agent business. "It's not a sidelight," he said. "It's a mission."

He has started another business designed specifically to educate lawyers on sports representation and college athletes on how to go about selecting an agent when they turn pro.

"Agents are getting totally out of hand," he said, "and the higher the salaries get, the more out of hand it becomes. We have kids paying fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars, sometimes more, for something that should really only cost them $2,500. . . . Anyone who gets a percentage of an athlete's contract is way overpaid. We tell the kids, if you're drafted, ask the team for an offer. Then we show the kids what the salary scale is for their round and their position for the last eight years. Our feeling is, the kids ought to be telling the agents they'll give them four percent over and above what I could get based on the team's offer.

"A lot of these agents will get the kids wrapped up in a five-year contract and then take these huge percentages up front. Our feeling is, if a lawyer does it and works by an hourly rate, it's just not that costly. Hell, for $75,000, I'd work for a kid day and night for six months. I'll clean his house, take care of his kids, anything he wants. We've got people with no degrees, no expertise in negotiating, somebody without a good job, now representing athletes. It's crazy."

With a grant from the Wisconsin law school, Garvey has set about converting coaches and athletic directors coast to coast to the wisdom of educating their athletes. The Big Ten is now a client, and so is the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

Garvey schedules seminars on campuses for athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. He provides detailed salary information, talks about the latest changes in eligibility rules, such as the underclass draft in the NFL last year, and tries to present what his brochure describes as "the role of honest, ethical and reasonably priced contract representatives for an aspiring pro player."

In the summer, Garvey and the Wisconsin law school also run a four-day seminar for lawyers to train them in sports representation. More than 150 attorneys have come through the program, and Garvey believes "eventually we're going to clean this thing up."