I haven’t reviewed many novels among the football books I’ve detailed my experiences with, and not all of those have been particularly serious-minded. For whatever reason, football doesn’t seem to generate particularly many novels and even fewer good ones. One of the exceptions is Frank Deford’s Everybody’s All-American. Whereas most football stories, in novel and book, begin with the outcast, the rookie, the declining veteran, and show a tale of how that person improves and overcomes adversity, Deford’s novel begins with protagonist Gavin Grey already the hero Grey Ghost, a collegiate superstar and All-American at North Carolina. Grey’s life, though, doesn’t end there-it continues, well, after the cheering stops, to borrow the title of a more recent book, toward a very fine but less heroic career in the pros and then afterward, where Grey struggles to find the success that once came almost effortlessly to the Ghost.
Most of us, Deford notes, die once. Star athletes die twice, an additional death when their playing career ends. Heroic athletes, like Grey, die a third time, dying first when they stop being heroes and return to the great morass of merely stars before the two other deaths. As fans, we sometimes cringe at the idea of heroic athletes staying on as lesser players. For some heroic athletes, life as an athlete is still good enough, still close enough for them to survive that first death. For others, that life of a lesser player is too much of a drop; that first death serves as both the first and second death. Once the playing days are gone, then, the athlete must survive despite that death. Most make that transition successfully, finding, if not the same sense of purpose and fulfillment they had playing football, enough to keep them going and often as not successfully. Others are more like Gavin Grey.
Everybody’s All-American is told from first-person perspective of Grey’s 7-years-younger nephew, who idolized the Grey Ghost but still treated him as Gavin and becomes a confidante to Gavin as he ages and undergoes that post-football struggle. I don’t tend to love the first person, but it worked fine in this story. As you would expect from Deford, the book is well-written. First published c. 1981, it features scenes set in 1950’s North Carolina and includes characters talking like people in North Carolina talked then, which for good reasons relating to much better racial tolerance is not how people talk now. The book was adapted into a movie starring Dennis Quaid, which I have not seen.