Gavin Grey (Dennis Quaid) is a 1950s star athlete known by the moniker "The Grey Ghost," who plays football at Louisiana University. His campus girlfriend Babs Rogers (Jessica Lange), cousin Donnie (Timothy Hutton) who also goes by the nickname "Cake," and teammate Ed Lawrence (John Goodman) adore his personality and charm. During the Sugar Bowl game, Gavin's play, defining his competitiveness throughout his career, causes a player from the opposing team to fumble the ball, which he returns to score a game-winning touchdown.
As his college days come to an end, Gavin ends up marrying Babs, starts a family, and gets drafted by the Washington Redskins. Lawrence opens a popular sports bar in Baton Rouge. Everyone is pleased for Gavin, including his friendly rival Narvel Blue (Carl Lumbly), who might have achieved professional stardom had he chosen an athletic career path. Reality quickly sets in for Gavin as life in the NFL is difficult, competition fierce, and the schedule grueling. Gavin is a respectable running back for the Washington Redskins, but hardly the idol worshipped by everyone back home during his school years. Concurrently, Lawrence has accrued a number of gambling debts. He is later murdered by unidentified attackers, creating more debts for Gavin and Babs, who had invested in Lawrence's business.
Babs does her best to keep up with her husband's career and mood swings, and in doing so inherits the role of the wage earner in their household. A sympathetic Donnie finds her frustrated and lonely, as his lifetime attraction to her brings them together for a brief extramarital affair. Gavin's financial setbacks encourage Babs to seek a job from Narvel to manage his restaurant.
After a brief retirement, money issues convince Gavin to accept a comeback offer from the Denver Broncos. The new NFL has passed him by though and Gray is forced to accept that his playing days are over. He enters a failed business relationship with entrepreneur Bolling Kiely (Ray Baker), whom he despises, spending countless hours telling old college football stories to clients. Donnie moves on with his life, becoming an author and getting engaged to a sophisticated woman named Leslie Stone (Patricia Clarkson), while supporting Gavin and Babs through a marital breakdown. A despaired figure in the end, Gavin mends his relationship with Babs as he spends his withdrawal from professional sports reminiscing about his famed athletic youth.