A 51-year-old mascot - he's in the lineup

Walter Mitty is 51 years old and living in the body of Fritz Von Berg, a substitute nose guard on the Monterey Peninsula (Calif.) College football team, a two-year school. Danny Kaye gets the movie role only if he shows he can run with pillows strapped to him, front and rear.

Von Berg is a character - a cheerleader type who has worked as a hairdresser, short-order cook, manager of a laundromat, and a couple million other assorted jobs. On a football field, Fritz would much prefer the more glamorous position of running back.

It is not true, however, that Von Berg carries a picture of the Heisman Trophy in his wallet, although he is probably better known among television talk-show hosts than many of college football's All-America candidates.

Coach Luke Phillips says that when Von Berg asked two years ago if he could come out for football, he told Fritz that as long as he met the physical requirements and was willing to go through the same hardships as anyone else he was welcome.

''I don't think Fritz missed a practice in two years,'' Phillips said. ''He's not quick and he doesn't run very well, but he's a worker and he's enthusiastic.

''I would have to believe that Von Berg regards himself as a motivator, because he often gave the squad pep talks before, during, and after games,'' Luke continued. ''He kept us loose, made some tackles for us, and I think he deliberately got into a fight in one game because he figured it might wake us up. Anyway, he got cheers when an official ordered him to the showers.''

Asked how often and under what circumstances he played Von Berg during the Lobos' season, which ended last weekend, Phillips replied:

''We didn't want Fritz going head to head against some 19-year-old monster who is 6 ft., 6 in. and 250 pounds. So sometimes we had to pick spots to protect him from himself. But of course he played like there was no tomorrow.''

Phillips points out that he had to view the whole thing objectively - that his job is to produce winning teams, not to ''accommodate the fantasies'' of a middle-aged man. And he says if another such situation doesn't come along during the rest of his career, it's fine with him.

''Actually, though, Von Berg is a very likable person, with a great sense of humor, who is also into things like poetry, writing, and philosophy,'' the coach said. ''He loves publicity and he knows how to get it. And I've heard rumors that he plans to write a book about his life. I think most of my players see him as a kind of favorite uncle.''

As I was unable to reach Von Berg personally, because he doesn't have a telephone, Phillips promised to leave a message for Fritz to call me at his earliest convenience.

Either Von Berg has been too busy returning draft inquiries from the Dallas Cowboys or else he is out trying to line up a postseason bowl game for the Lobos!

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