Nathan Whitaker is a New York Times-bestselling author who has co-authored books with Tony Dungy, Tim Tebow, and sportscaster James Brown. He's also worked with two NFL teams: the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now Mr. Whitaker has begun a “new chapter" with Snap Decision, his first young adult novel!
The book tells the story of the junior varsity and varsity football teams at Archie F. Carr School, in Lincoln, Florida. The primary characters in the book are 8th grade neighbors and best friends Chase Clark and Tripp Stevens. Chase plays for the junior varsity team and Tripp is on the varsity team. But after showing flashes of promise, Chase is invited to practice with the varsity team, dress with them on game days, and watch games from the sidelines.
At one of the games, Tripp gets tackled, and he hits his head on the turf. Hard. Nobody really knows or saw what happened to Tripp — except for Chase, who was standing only a few feet away. If the coaches find out that Tripp hit his head, then he will be benched for the rest of the season. But that would only happen if Chase told the coaches.
To find out if Chase tells the coaches about Tripp's fall, you'll have to read Snap Decision. But first, check out my interview with Whitaker about the book, his experience as a writer, and what sport he'd like to tackle next!
You’ve written about football for grownups before. Why did you decide to write a book for kids?
Because I was interested in trying to communicate with kids and reach them. I’ve got two daughters, one is 14 and one is 9. I taught a class of 8th graders last year and really enjoyed being around the kids, and I wanted to see if I could write some stuff that they would enjoy.
What kind of challenges did you face writing for a younger audience?
The primary challenge was to figure out the vocabulary. I finally decided that I was going to write as if I was writing for adults and give the kids the benefit of the doubt that they could figure out the terms, themes, and ideas just as well as adults could. The other challenge was trying to decide how much detail kids would want. I worked in football for the Buccaneers and for the Jaguars, and played in college. I decided to err on the side of the vocabulary and giving them a fair amount and see what they thought of it.
How did you come up with the idea of a story set around the world of youth football?
When I was trying to figure out what would be interesting to middle schoolers, trying to figure out the sport that I maybe knew the most to start with and that was either football or baseball, both of which I played through college. I ended up deciding on football. Then trying to come up with a story that I thought would be fun for kids. Here in Florida, we’ve got some schools that combine the middle school and high school, and I thought it would be fun if some of the middle schoolers got to play with some of the high schoolers on the team. So that is where the whole story started coming together.
Why did you want concussions to play a big part in the plot?
Well, they seem to be coming up, whether it’s in the NFL or all the way down to kids levels. I wrote a book with Tim Tebow where his concussion was a huge part of his story, and that kind of put it in my head. Then what was interesting along the way was finding out from the doctors at the University of Florida, which is where I live, who treated Tim Tebow. They said that they are learning so much about brains and about how to deal with concussions all the time. They wouldn’t have treated Tim the same way, and that was only four or five years ago. That made me realize as I was writing it that there is a lot happening here and that maybe there is something worthwhile about talking about concussions so kids can learn and kind of think about keeping themselves, their brains, and other parts of them safe.
You used to work for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and you've worked as a lawyer and agent. What is it about writing that makes you keep coming back to it?
There is a creativity that I really enjoy. Certainly in terms of fiction, as we discussed earlier and thinking of characters and stories. But there’s also even when I’m telling someone else’s story, like Tim Tebow’s or Tony Dungy's, a chance to think about how you’d phrase something, and what should come next. Tony Dungy and I got in a very friendly debate about how his first book should start. I wanted it to start with a bad story of when he was fired. He thought maybe it should start with a good story of a Super Bowl victory or something. There was a creativity to trying to decide how you should start the story and what you do that I’ve really enjoyed and always have.
What surprised you the most when you began working as an author?
That’s a great question! I think the thing that surprised me the most was how many people talked about “writer block.” The idea that they struggled with what to write or how to finish their story. That is something I have never experienced and have been pleasantly surprised to find that I really haven’t had “writers block.”
What do you hope kids take away from reading Snap Decision?
I think that there are two things. One, I would love for them to learn something about concussions and some of the signs and some of the things to think about. Two, I hope they take away the importance of honesty and doing the right thing. Even if there are things that may seem bad in the short term, things usually seem to work out in the long term if we stick to the truth.
You’ve written a lot about football. What other sports would you like to write about?
I would definitely like to write about baseball, which I played. I understand you like softball. That is one of my favorites. I wasn’t great at it, but I also enjoyed basketball and March Madness. We are really good friends with Billy Donovan, the coach at the University of Florida. So I would like to write about basketball, too.
Photos courtesy Zondervan