THE DISAPPEARANCE of bona fide heroes from American life has been noted and lamented so many times that it has become a truism. The corollary, perhaps, is that bogus heroes -- athletes, entertainers, preachers, pols -- now tend to fill the vacuum. Frank Deford is preoccupied in this novel with the dark side of that phenomenon: what happens on the receiving end of all the frenzied adulation, and what happens when time and public ennui leave the hero forgotten.

Deford, for many years a writer at Sports Illustrated, is something of a specialist in modern celebrity. He has written books on the Miss America pageant and on tennis star Bill Tilden's rise and demise. In his new book, Deford cuts an imaginary hero from the cloth of that research. Gavin Grey, class of '54 at the University of North Carolina, is the prodigious halfback of the champion Tarheels and the fastest man to have carried a football for them in many a season. And as the title suggests, the legend of "The Grey Ghost" is hardly provincial. He's even been on the Ed Sullivan show.

Narrated by his clear-eyed nephew Donnie, this story traces Gavin's trajactory from Chapel Hill into the professional leagues -- ultimately to the Redskins, as a matter of fact -- and then, too soon for comfort, into forced retirement. Gavin gropes his way into a sinecure as an assistant golf pro (with the incongruous title of vice-president) at a Carolina resort country club and to a brittle middle age of yearning for rekindled fame as a "national spokesman" for an unguent that promises to banish unsightly gray hairs.

Gavin Grey is transformed from a shy and conscientious BMOC -- from a heroism honestly come by -- to a confused and pitiable ghost of his former self -- to a heroism desperately clung to. It is a wrenching process to follow, but Deford, to his great credit, betrays neither condescension for Gavin's delusions nor contempt for the "system" that feeds them. The metamorphosis of Gavin's sweetheart Babs from wide-eyed devotion to weary self-sufficiency is no less absorbing or sensitive. And along the way plenty of fun, wicked and wholesome, is poked at everything from "Kowlinah" football mania to the making of television commercials.