New light on the dark side of the game

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published September 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 30, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Carla Killough McClafferty of Benton has written a new book about concussions in football.

BENTON — Veteran author Carla Killough McClafferty of Benton was surprised when her editor at Carolrhonda Books asked her to write a book about concussions and football players.

“He said, ‘I believe this will be a major issue for a long time, and I want you to do the book,’” said McClafferty, who lives in Benton. “I told him I was not a sports person and didn’t know football. ‘Then it will be unbiased, and so you will be better at looking at the research,’ he said.”

The author already had a deep-felt knowledge of severe head injuries. In 1988, her son died of a head injury in an accident.

“But I did not let that shadow what I wrote,” she said. “I wanted to give people information, but I also wanted to give a sense of the love of the game and what it means to so many people.”

The danger of concussion to players at all levels of football is nothing new to the sport, although medical research is discovering more about the injury, its symptoms and the route to recovery.

The book, Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment, begins with the death of Von Gammon, a sophomore defensive line player for the University of Georgia in 1987. After his death, the university and other schools in the state disbanded their teams, and the Georgia Legislature passed a bill outlawing football games. But the governor refused to sign the bill because the player’s mother did not want her son’s death to end the game he loved so much.

“I started with the early days of football and the injuries in the Harvard-Yale games,” McClafferty said. “They had a well-documented rivalry, and Bill Reid, the Harvard coach, kept a journal and talked about his quarterback having a concussion.”

During the time, a national battle raged over the roughness of the games, in which young men were hurt and died. President Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, supported football and asked coaches, including Reid, to come up with rules for making the game safer.

Still, in 1905, according to McClafferty’s book, the Harvard team doctor, Edward Nichols, observed 19 concussions sustained on the field. The doctor said the concussions were considered a “trivial injury and rather regarded as a joke,” while young men talked of memory loss. “It was common to hear a player ask if he had played the first or second half of the game,” Nichols wrote in a Boston medical journal.

“In those days and until recently, a concussion meant you were knocked out; that was the rule of thumb,” McClafferty said. “We now know it is a jolt or blow to the head that disturbs the function of the brain. Only about 10 percent of those who have a concussion are knocked out.”

For the medical science of concussions, McClafferty talked with leading authorities on head trauma, including Dr. Robert Cantu, chief of neurosurgery at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass.

“He has 26 symptoms of concussion that I have on page 86 of the book that I think my teenage readers and their parents can understand,” she said. “It is a brand-new science, and I talked with research scientists at the University of Michigan and at Purdue University. The research of their findings are shocking, especially in high schools.”

McClafferty said traumatic brain injuries are not limited to football players. She said that while football tops the list for concussion in high-school sports, the second is girls soccer.

“There are also the fliers in the cheer squads that get concussions when they fall,” she said. “I hope the attention will trickle down to the local level so that parents make their decisions on good information, and players and their parents will know what to look for when it comes to concussions.”

Along with physical rest, McClafferty said, people who have had a concussion should take a break from mentally taxing work.

“It means complete mental rest as well,” she said. “No TV, no video games or movies, and no studies. With rest, the brain recovers faster. Without rest, it drags out. There have to be careful plans to get back to school safely. A headache can mean trouble.”

But the book is not a warning against football, the author said. It is about information for families to use to make choices.

“The turning point for the good was talking with Kevin Turner, who played college football for Alabama and was with the Patriots and Eagles in the NFL. He has ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a progressive degenerative disease that affects the brain.”

During his interview with McClafferty, Turner talked about his love of the game.

“He was funny, charming and honest, and I got to look at football with his eyes,” she said. “He said he had been playing football since he was 5, and I asked him how it felt to win a state championship and play in front of 70,000 fans in the NFL.”

Originally, McClafferty thought the interview would be just background, but she said his stories just kept coming back until she could not get them out of her head. She also talked with local football coaches.

“Darrell Ellis (offensive coach at Glen Rose High School) is my next-door neighbor, and I wanted to ask him what football taught kids that no other sport does,” she said. “I also talked with coach Paul Calley at Bryant High School.

“Those coaches and others all had the same answers, about brotherhood of teammates working together. Everyone has a job, and it will take all of them working together on every single play. They all said it changes a young man for the better. The local coaches were open and honest.”

McClafferty said she wanted to balance the research with the love of the game, and focus on information.

“There are protocols. Parents have to sign off on their son playing football,” she said. “I want my book to have the pieces woven together so the reader can understand every step. It is vitally important that they understand. I also wanted people to see the fabulous and wonderful game of football that I discovered.”

On Thursday, the NFL reached an agreement with some 4,500 former players and their families with a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries.

McClafferty will give a presentation on and sign copies of Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment, from 6-7:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Bob Herzfeld Memorial Library in Benton. For more information, call the library at (501) 778-4766.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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