The dictionary defines “denouement” as “the final resolution or clarification of a dramatic or narrative plot,” or “the outcome of a sequence of events; the end result.” For Gavin Grey, the protagonist in Frank Deford’s cautionary tale about the aftermath of gridiron glory, the denouement spans a two-decades plus time period. His descent is palpable, yet excruciatingly slow. Unable to come to terms with the loss of his football career, Grey antagonizes everybody around him – his wife, Babs, his business associates and even his nephew Donnie, the narrator of the book.
Grey is a standout tailback at the University of North Carolina in 1954. Athletic success comes to him early and reaches its zenith in college. He can do no wrong, both on and off the field. He dates Babs, “the most beautiful creature that God ever put upon the face of this earth,” saves a woman from a sorority house fire, and seems to be an affable and grounded young man, in contrast to the myriad out-of-control athletes that dot the college landscape. Donnie McClure, the teenage son of Grey’s older sister, at first admires Grey from afar, and then is gradually drawn closer to his hero. Donnie is an athletically challenged young man, and naturally Grey’s prowess on the field fascinates him. In addition, Donnie is infatuated with Babs – an infatuation that spans the entire length of the novel. Deford presents Donnie as the moral compass around which Grey’s descent is measured. Not having peaked at an early age, unlike Grey, Donnie leads a more measured and even life, the cadences of which take a predictable path, from education to a life as a history professor.
For Grey, professional football is a personal letdown after the heady days of college. While he has a fair amount of success, he plays on losing teams. In addition, he realizes that fans of professional football (at least at the time of the novel) do not idolize the stars much the same way as college fans do. He is no longer the “Grey Ghost,” the icon of North Carolina football, the yardstick against which all football achievements are measured. Deford skillfully portrays the subtle changes in Grey as he transforms from a genial college athlete to a self-absorbed professional football player, increasingly unable to face the end of his career and completely clueless in the secular world. To compound Grey’s predicament, it is at this same time that Babs comes out of Grey’s shadow to seek a career of her own, though her motivation is the financial security of the family. For Grey, all of this is too much. Deford expertly details Grey’s final descent in a series of vignettes featuring an ignoble cast of characters including a car dealer and his promiscuous wife and a business partner who falls victim to gambling.
This is not a book about football per se. There are a scant three pages of description of actual football action. Deford’s fascination is with Gavin Grey’s life off the field and the interplay, sometimes subtle, between the action on the field and events off it. Deford’s choice of setting works well as the reader is able to identify with the South’s desperate need for heroes. Gavin Grey’s exploits on the field are constantly compared to Jeb Stuart, the South’s Civil War hero. North Carolina also brings into sharp focus the testy and often fragile relationship between whites and blacks.
In Donnie McClure, Deford offers us the view of the outsider – the Everyman – who watches an athlete perform astonishing feats on the football field with perfect control yet careens wildly outside of it. To McClure, Gavin Grey has everything, the glory, the woman of his dreams, the adulation, and the business opportunities. Yet Grey fritters all of them away through his self-absorption and total lack of preparation for life after football. Deford’s book was originally published in 1981 (the current edition has a new preface by the author), yet the events and characters seem timeless.