Sportswriter Frank Deford recently wrote of the trouble he had with a fictional character being a little too true to life -- or at least that's what UNC fans thought. In the early 1980s, he published the novel Everybody's All-American, about a washed-up former college football star. Deford explained that the character was drawn from many athletes in many sports, but because the story was set in Chapel Hill, readers insisted he must have based his character on UNC's All-American Charlie Choo-Choo Justice. They were not dissuaded by Deford's arguments that he had never met Justice and knew nothing about him. (Similarly, Justice insisted that he had never read the book, but that it was not based on him.)
In 1982, Deford was interviewed by N&O sports writer Bruce Phillips about the book and the assumed connection to Choo-Choo Justice.
Some people think the story is based on the exploits of Charlie (Choo Choo) Justice, a real Tar Heel legend, but Deford said it is not so.
"I have never met Justice and I'm surprised that anybody would identify my character with him," Deford said..."Besides, my hero comes to a tragic end and I understand Justice is doing well in life and business...
Deford said the idea for Everybody's All-American, to which movie rights have been sold to Warner Brothers, germinated through a long career covering sports and observing what happens to heroes going through the process of growing old and losing the limelight and the applause.
"The book is a composite of many, many athletes I've known," he said. "And about the lives of those around them. Then I threw in my characters and spread them from around the state, Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilson, High Point, etc. It was like putting a political ticket together.
"If the book doesn't do well in North Carolina, then I'm in big trouble." -- The News & Observer 8/17/1982
Well, when it came time to make the movie, Deford did find himself in big trouble. The university refused to allow filming on campus because officials thought it would be too disruptive to the academic schedule.
(Rollie Tillman Jr., vice chancellor for university relations) denied that the project had been turned down because of concern for the university's image. Racial elements are contained in the script, which begins in the 1950s, when the university was segregated. ...
Did Deford model the title character after UNC's gridiron legend, Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice? Was UNC concerned that the treatment of the player's life might reflect unfavorably on the university?
"The answer is no," Tillman said. "That wasn't addressed." -- The News & Observer 12/6/1983
At the time, the state was in stiff competition with South Carolina to break into the film industry, and both were being considered for the location of the Dino De Laurentis studio, which was eventually built in Wilmington. The NC Film Commission warned that UNC could jeopardize the state's chances of landing the film, which intended to shoot in about 60 locations across the state.
Indeed, the film's producer started looking elsewhere.
"The minute we heard UNC refused to reconsider...we sent our people into South Carolina."
was eventually made in Louisiana, and immediately Deford was accused of basing his hero on LSU's All-American Billy Cannon -- another player he had never met.