I’ve only been a football fan for about a dozen years now, getting into watching the game when one of our children attended a Big Ten college. Since then, I’ve wondered what becomes of the big college gridiron stars, the ones who either don’t go on to the NFL or, if they do, have reasonable but not long careers. How do they go from truly being Big Men on Campus to just one of the rest of us?
The late sportswriter Frank Deford must have been fascinated by that question, as well, and in 1981 he wrote the novel “Everybody’s All-American,” to answer it with a well-paced piece of fiction that still resonates as a tale of heroes who long outlive their moment of glory. (It was later made into a movie starring Jessica Lange and Dennis Quaid.) As a celebrated writer for Sports Illustrated and a sports commentator for NPR, Deford knew this territory well.
His writing talent is on clear display in this page-turning story of fictional Gavin Grey, an All-American athlete, star running back for the University of North Carolina Tarheels team in 1954. Gavin — or “The Grey Ghost” as he was known during his glory days — starts out as a humble man, not prone to braggadocio during his college career, a true hero even off the field when he saves a young woman from a fire. He marries his college sweetheart, Babs, herself a former Blueberry Queen and dazzling beauty, and they seem destined for a good life.
But Deford shows you how a hero who outlives his legendary feats faces a slow decline if he can’t accept an average life, and Gavin’s creep toward oblivion, with a few stops at public embarrassments along the way, is heartbreaking to witness, even as you are frustrated by the The Grey Ghost’s inability to accept his fate.
Ironically, The Ghost loses his more endearing qualities as he grows older. From modest star, he eventually changes into a self-focused braggart whose only topic of conversation is football and only then the various master plays he executed in his youth or during his relatively short career in the pros.
As his star falls, Babs’s rises, and it’s no surprise that marital problems ensue, despite their great love for each other.
Deford fills the book with sometimes funny asides, sometimes laser-perfect observations on life, men, women, the South, and, of course, football.
“You cannot donate too much to youth,” he has an old friend of The Grey Ghost observe at one point, “and expect to sustain yourself in long life.”
He has the narrator, a young man entwined in the Greys’ life just as the narrator in The Great Gatsby is in the lives of the Buchanans, also observe at one point that the heat in the South leads to bad temper, and if they’d had air-conditioning in the 1860s, he doubts there would have been a Civil War.
The wives of football players, this narrator also notices, don’t mind their men looking away from them to other women so much as they mind them being pulled to the companionship of their male teammates with whom the women can’t compete.
In fact, one of the most touching scenes in the book is the end of the last collegiate game The Ghost plays, along with two of his best football friends, Lawrence and Finegan. Deford describes the pre-play action thus:
“Wait,” Gavin said, and he reached across the huddle to the linemen, and — first Finegan, and then Lawrence — he touched them on the chin strap, held his fingers there and looked them directly in the eyes. It was a very dear thing for a man to do, and daring, too, for what people would say. Maybe only The Ghost could have gotten away with it. It was a caress he gave them both; he was telling them that he loved them.
Deford’s book is filled with a sense of life in the 1950s through the ’70s, with all of its casual racism, sexism and vulgarity. The “n” word is sprinkled through the narrative, along with many other offensive terms. They’re not used gratuitously, to shock, however. Instead, they provide verisimilitude, and you have the feeling that Deford himself probably heard all these things said at one time or another, in locker rooms, interviews, or just at a bar swapping stories with former football stars.
In the end, the book is about heroism on the field of battle — football is likened to a substitute for actual war, played by elites who otherwise don’t get a chance to prove their manly virtues. To enhance this aspect of his storytelling, Deford starts each of the book’s three sections with an excerpt from a (not real) book about Confederate hero Jeb Stuart, who died young, thus never losing his legendary status.
In this more enlightened time, it’s hard to read romanticized snippets about men who fought to preserve the institution of slavery, so I ended up skipping those sections, or, at best, just giving them a quick skim. If they bother you, too, don’t worry — the main story of Gavin and Babs Grey sustains a reader’s interest. It’s their tale that keeps you turning pages until the denouement, shortly after the twenty-fifth anniversary of the The Ghost’s winning Tarheel team.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist.