Guest Post: Carla Killough McClafferty on Revealing Your Heart in Nonfiction

By Carla Killough McClafferty
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

There is a little piece of me in every nonfiction book I’ve written. Maybe no one else can tell, but I know it is there. Sometimes I see it in the text of the words I’ve written. Sometimes I see it in the white space –the words I didn’t write.

Of all my books for young readers, the one that reveals the most of my own heart is my newest book, Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment (Carolrhoda, 2013).

As I began the research for the book, I recognized that I have a deep emotional connection to head injuries. My youngest son, Corey, died from a head injury after falling from a swing at the age of fourteen months. But I had no idea how personal it would get.

Corey

I began my research with the science part of the book—the easiest part for me. I managed to get a telephone interview with Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist and neuropathologist who is an internationally renowned expert on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Dr. McKee is frequently in the news because she has studied the brains of deceased NFL players found to have the disease. She graciously answered my questions and gave me permission to use her brain images in my book.

I also interviewed Dr. Robert Cantu, probably America’s leading authority on the treatment of concussions. Then I talked at length with the researchers from Purdue and the University of Michigan who study the effects of repetitive head injuries on High School football teams.

Next my goal was to understand the love of football. I interviewed football coaches, athletic directors, athletic trainers, and retired NFL players.

Kevin Turner

One game changer for me was my interview with Kevin Turner, a former pro who played for the Patriots and the Eagles. I asked Kevin, “What does it feel like to play in the High School State Championship game in Alabama?” and “What does it feel like to play in an NFL game in front of 70,000 screaming fans?”

And boy did he ever tell me! When I couldn’t get his stories out of my mind, I knew they had to be in the book. Talking to Kevin allowed me to see football through the eyes of a man who loves the game.

Then I came to the hardest part of my research. I interviewed the
families of Nathan Stiles and Eric Pelly. Nathan and Eric were both
teenagers who died as a result of concussions—and both of their brains
already had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Nathan
Eric at Homecoming

By this point in my research I understood that even though the cause of the injury was different, my son Corey died in the same way as Nathan and Eric.

The writer in me asked these families the hard questions. At the same time the woman in me — who knows the devastation of losing a child — grieved for their sons and for mine.

 I promised these families that I would write about the life and death of their sons with the same love and respect that I do when I write about my own child.

I am humbled that they trusted me.

When promoting my book, I say that Forth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment deals with the reality of concussions balanced with the love of the game. And it is. But between the text and the white space, the book is a whole lot more.

4 Replies to “Guest Post: Carla Killough McClafferty on Revealing Your Heart in Nonfiction”

  1. My son played numerous sports and at 14 had a major concussion in his first year playing football. It was in practice before games even started, and he was out for the season. I convinced him to give up football and go back to soccer. A year later he received another playing goalie in soccer. Already being ADHD, having head injuries were definitely not helpful. Wearing a mouth guard might have helped prevent the second one, but convincing a 15 yr. old to do something not "required" is difficult. Thanks for looking at a difficult subject. Sports are important to many children (and adults). Let's find a way to make them safer.

  2. Carla,This is a powerful post. And I can't wait to read your book, as I am sure that it, too, is powerful and will impact people's lives.Delving into a subject that touches into your own grief so directly takes courage, honesty and great skill. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Carla, thank you for sharing this deeply personal post. I had wondered how much your son's accident had influenced you in your choice to pursue this particular topic, and have been admiring you for the courage it must have taken for you to complete the research and writing of it. Now I am even more impressed by your willingness to share it all with us. You are one tough lady, yet always with a heart of gold. Hugs,Laurie

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