• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #38: Gavin Grey


The only time I've ever felt bad when a Broncos player is sad.

Frank Deford has long been one of my favorite sportswriters. He brings a dignity and intellect to his work that I admire, with an appreciation of the humanity of athletes and a subtle sense of humor. For me, the pinnacle of his work is his upsetting 1981 novel, Everybody's All-American. It traces the life of Gavin Grey, a can't miss North Carolina football player who wins the Heisman, a god of the 1950s. Only things don't follow the script. His professional career is cut short by injury, leaving him to wander the rest of his life sinking deeper into reminiscence and shadow, becoming the Grey Ghost in fact as well as nickname.

The character of Grey is a tragic one, partially because he's so familiar. We all know people who can't reinvent themselves, trapped in a persona rooted in the past. In the novel (and in the largely forgettable film version), Grey is tortured by the growth of those closest to him - his wife, the former beauty queen, becomes a successful businesswoman. His former teammate and friend overcomes racism to become a wealthy restaurant owner. Even his gawky nephew, the book's narrator, finds respect as a scholar. But Grey, who was born to be a hero, an object of worship and adoration, becomes instead a sad thing, an object of pity.

I won't say more because I recommend the book (and less so the movie). Deford skillfully paints this picture of a man-child who was good at one thing, and when that's taken from him, has no compass for navigating life. It's a brutal read, painful and beautiful, and perhaps even instructive. There are lessons there, for those of us willing to confront them.

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