Neely Crenshaw is obsessed with the divide between his current life as an ordinary real estate salesman whose wife has left him and his "past life" as a football captain and star adored by the entire town of Messina. His philosophy prior to his career-ending injury during a college game was that of an athlete: complete belief in the glory of the game, a misplaced sense that being a champion is eternal, and a willingness to win at all costs.
Back then, Crenshaw was trapped in his own hero's complex, one that set him at odds with the severe techniques of Coach Eddie Rake. After his career is over, Crenshaw seems to be paralyzed by his faded fame and the fear that the people of Messina resent him for never "making it big." This internal conflict serves as one of the major points of the novel, and is perhaps best described by one of Crenshaw's fellow players:
You count the years until you get a varsity jersey, then you’re a hero, an idol, a cocky bastard because in this town you can do no wrong. You win and win and you’re the king of your own little world, then poof, it’s gone. You play your last game and everybody cries. You can’t believe it’s over. Then another team comes right behind you and you’re forgotten.