Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Playing Through the Whistle (2016)

By S.L. Price

The subtitle of “Playing Through the Whistle” is “Steel, Football, and an American Town,” and there’s a picture of a high school football stadium. Yes, there’s plenty of football in the book, which is probably why you’ll find it in the sports department of the bookstore.

But don’t be fooled by that. This is a story that could feel right at home in the American history, business or urban studies sections of the store.

It’s the tale of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and it’s fascinating. I don't expect to read a better book this year.

Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price, one of the magazine’s best writers, takes a long, thorough look at this very American city. Aliquippa is located about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, right along the Ohio River. Once upon a time, when the Pittsburgh area was famous for making steel, Aliquippa did well. J&L Steel took land on the river for its facilities that eventually stretched for more than seven miles.

The company employed several thousand workers at its peak. The jobs were often difficult and taxing, producing burns and health problems for some employees and pollution for the region. Few seemed to like the work. But for those who had a high school education or less, and for those who had just come over from foreign countries in search of the American Dream, it was steady employment and a chance to support a family.

By the end of World War II, the rest of the world’s industrial production was in ruins - leaving American factories triumphant. Times were good in places like Aliquippa in the post-war period.

Along the way, football became embedded in the DNA of the region. We associate quarterbacks with Western Pennsylvania, as players such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly reached superstardom in the NFL. But the definitive player from that part of the world just might be Mike Ditka. He was a subtle as a forearm to the face on and off the field, and he reinvented the tight end position in reaching the Hall of Fame. Yes, he was from Aliquippa. Football games became a gathering place for the town, a source of local pride.

Little did we know by the late 1950s that the seeds for the demise of Aliquippa has already been sown. Companies invested in new factories overseas, and they used the latest technology while J&L was still relying on its 1903 equipment for the most part. By 1959, America imported more steel than it exported for the first time. Still, profits were strong. Labor kept asking management for more money and benefits, and management kept labor peace by accepting many demands. In other words, neither side had much foresight.

It all created a bubble that was waiting to burst, and burst it did in the early 1980s when portions of the steel mill started to close in rapid succession. Some people couldn’t find jobs and moved out. The ones who stayed were in a town with a declining tax base with crime and drug use rising quickly.

The football team became one of the few rallying points, still beating bigger schools and winning some titles, but even that aspect of town life wasn’t immune to the pressures of the situation. The Quips won some championships with such future pros as Ty Law and Darrelle Revis, but were sometimes hit with racial divides and funding problems. Ditka and Revis in particular have been generous with time and money in giving something back to their hometown, but it’s a difficult battle.

Price, who first came to town to write a long magazine feature on team and town about five years ago, obviously spent a lot of time getting to know Aliquippa. He went through the history books and newspaper archives to find how it grew and declined over the years. Price also talked to several former and current residents about why they left or why they stayed. And he talked to coaches about what it’s like to try to keep a high school team together when society’s problems leak into the schools, as they always do. Price has said that he was astonished by how open everyone was in Aliquippa to him in telling the stories.

About the only drawback to the book is that Price goes into great detail outlining some of the incidents that have taken place in the past 35 years or so, including murders, drug-related violence and other illegal activity. The names can be a little tough to follow after a while, but the message about the problems there certainly come through loud and clear.

There are plenty of towns like Aliquippa out there, areas that have never recovered from the time when America stopped making a lot of things. What’s more, no one has many good ideas on what to do about it. A handful of people make it out of such places through football, but several athletes with just as much ability got sidetracked into an abyss. “Playing Through the Whistle” reviews the life of a town that we’ve tried to forget; Price shows us that we need to remember it, and do something about it.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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