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How Frank Gifford inspired a fictional memoir about 'rejection, pain and loss'

How Frank Gifford inspired a fictional memoir about 'rejection, pain and loss'
Frank Gifford playing football for the New York Giants in 1959. (Associated Press)

Frank Gifford, who died Sunday in Connecticut at age 84, was not just a Hall of Fame running back and broadcaster. He was also the unlikely inspiration for Frederick Exley's 1968 "fictional memoir" "A Fan's Notes," which revolves in part around the author's obsession with Gifford, both as a player for the New York Giants, and, before that, at USC.

"I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm," Exley writes of his hero, "...that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men.... Each time I heard the roar of the crowd, it roared in my ears as much for me as for him."

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"A Fan's Notes" is miraculous in the truest sense of the word, which is to say it shouldn't exist at all. In its pages, Exley reveals all his human failings and inadequacies, his understanding that "life isn't all a goddam football game! You won't always get the girl! Life is rejection and pain and loss."

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Thirty-nine when it was published, he had done little of substance before writing the book, and although it won a William Faulkner Award — and is considered deeply influential by many writers, including myself — he didn't follow it up with much. In the ensuing years, he published two additional books, both of which offer variations on its themes. By the time he died, in 1992, after decades of alcoholism, Exley had largely slipped from public consciousness.

So what is it about "A Fan's Notes"? Partly, it's the language, which is lush and elusive, beautiful even when describing the most degrading events. Even more, it is Exley's willingness to say anything and everything, to make a book out of his "rejection and pain and loss." To suggest that such emotions were triggered by Gifford is both true and a bit of an overstatement, but certainly, the author's (imagined) relationship with the athlete informs the emotional life of the work.

At one point, Exley describes a face-to-face encounter with Gifford, which took place in the 1940s, when both were students at USC. As Exley eats at a campus hangout, he sees the football player and glares at him. Gifford, in response, smiles and says hello.

"I wanted to jump up and throw my water glass through the plate-glass window," Exley remembers. "Then almost immediately a kind of sullenness set in, then shame.... With that smile, whatever he meant by it, a smile that he doubtless wouldn't remember, he impressed upon me, in the rigidity of my embarrassment, that it is unmanly to burden others with one's grief."

What Exley's getting at are the rigors of maturity, in which, as I used to say to my children, you get what you get and you don't get upset. It's a bromide, sure, but it's also perhaps the hardest lesson we can learn. At the heart of "A Fan's Notes" is this difficult knowledge: that the world doesn't care about our petty longings, that our desires may ultimately find fulfillment only in fantasy.

And yet, the magnificent paradox of "A Fan's Notes" is that, in asserting his fantasy, his fanhood, Exley, finally and for the only time, becomes the center of the attention he desires.

Among his admirers, ironically, was Gifford, who threw a publication party for Exley's third book, "Last Notes From Home," in 1988. By that point, Exley was long done as a writer, but his astonishing first book remains.

"A Fan's Notes" offers a reminder that sometimes loss leads us to redemption, even as redemption leads us back to loss. The human condition in a nutshell … and proof that inspiration, literary or otherwise, can strike in the most unexpected places, that every voice is really a voice in the crowd.

Twitter: @davidulin

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