John Drescher

This tough, defiant Pennsylvania town smelts football players

S.L. Price.
S.L. Price.

The Western Pennsylvania town of Aliquippa for decades produced steel and football players. It doesn’t produce much steel anymore but it still smelts football players.

Plenty of towns in that football-mad part of Pennsylvania have produced an NFL player. Remarkably, Aliquippa, which has shriveled to fewer than 10,000 residents, has produced 18, including four current or likely future Hall of Famers — Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis.

In his new book, Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1983, digs deep to report on Aliquippa’s intertwined history of steel and football. Price will speak at Quail Ridge Books in North Hills next Saturday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m., about “Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town.”

Price, 55, has worked for Sports Illustrated since 1994 and has written three other books. His new book is one of five finalists for the 2017 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, which honors a work of nonfiction “of the strongest literary character.”

It’s been said the best books about sports aren’t really about sports, and that’s the case with “Playing Through the Whistle.” Price barely mentions football in the first 75 pages as he tells Aliquippa’s history of transplants who made it into a thriving steel town. The newcomers were white immigrants from Europe and Southern blacks seeking a different life, including the parents of future Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who moved there from Pittsboro in Chatham County.

Town in decline

Price, who lives in Washington, D.C., went to Aliquippa in 2010 to work on a Sports Illustrated story, which was published in early 2011. Even though that was the longest story he’d ever written for the magazine, he thought there was more to be told. During the next five years, he made the four-hour drive to Aliquippa 20 to 25 times and interviewed about 175 people.

“Everybody always was incredibly and intensely interested in telling me their stories,” Price told me this week. Said Mayor Dwan Walker: “He came in and pretty much lived here. He gained the trust of everybody. I have a lot of respect for the man. He’s pretty much family now.”

Mike Ditka says tough times don’t last but tough people do.

Residents had the benefit of reading Price’s 2011 article about them and knew he was going to tell their story fairly and accurately, including their accomplishments and disappointments.

“Playing Through the Whistle” is a history of a town but it’s more than that. Price places Aliquippa in a larger context of the decline of American manufacturing. Aliquippa once had more than 25,000 people and has lost more than half of its population. Its economic decline will resonate in North Carolina manufacturing towns like Roanoke Rapids, Lumberton and Lenoir.

Two booster clubs

Price also writes perceptively about racial tensions, crack cocaine and the violence that has scarred Aliquippa. The town was so divided racially in the 1970s that there was a football booster club run by whites and one run by blacks, and separate banquets for the white players and for the black players. Black and white fans of the Quips sat on different sides of the Aliquippa High football stadium.

The football team “really did become a catalyst for racial healing in a way that nothing else could,” Price said. But with the honest, nuanced reporting in this book, in which good mingles with bad, there isn’t much chance of it being made into a feel-good Disney movie.

Ditka, class of 1956 at Aliquippa High, says tough times don’t last but tough people do. Price might as well be describing the town when he writes that the Aliquippa football spirit is a common defiance, “a core of resentment at a world that left them to die, an us-against-everyone chip” on the shoulder.

Price admires Aliquippans’ resilience and willingness to sacrifice for the next generation. “They believe their town is special,” Price said, “and I think they understand that I believe it is too.”

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher

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