The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa: Hope and despair in a Pennsylvania mill town
In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to run in the magazine's history. Today's selection is on a small Western Pennsylvania mill town that, after five decades of economic decline and racial conflict, found unity and hope on the football field.
The fear came for Willie Walker that November. He was not expecting it. Evening had dropped early and hard, as it does in Western Pennsylvania in the fall, but these were streets he had known forever. Hours had passed since the 2004 regional championship game had ended down in Pittsburgh; the adrenaline and bravado on the ride home had long since burned off, replaced by grief, then mere regret. They had lost. The Aliquippa High football team, for all its history of success, had been beaten. Now, in the backseat, Walker felt a numbness settling in. Losing happens. You move on. You start thinking about what's next.
Walker was a senior. Just seven months until graduation, and he'd be able to say it: He had survived. The town hadn't killed, hadn't crippled, hadn't defeated him, though God knows it had tried. His life had been a cliché of criminal pathology: father long dead, mother struggling with crack addiction, days of hunger, corners promising casual violence. Aliquippa's streets are, as one of Walker's coaches put it, "a spiderweb" capable of ensnaring the most innocent, and though Walker never lost sight of his prize—college somewhere, anywhere—he was hardly innocent. No, for a time he had leaped into the web, daring it to grab hold.
The year before, Willie (Silent But Violent) Walker had been a star lineman for Aliquippa's 2003 state championship team, a 6'1", 295-pound, 4.8-in-the-40 "monster," says Darrelle Revis, then Walker's teammate and now a Jets cornerback. But during the season, after Walker's mother was jailed on parole violation, the bottom had fallen out: Walker had gone to the coaching staff in tears, ready to quit. He was alone, 17, with a 13-year-old sister to care for and no money for food or rent. Coaches and boosters mobilized, had a refrigerator stocked with groceries delivered to Walker's apartment in the Valley Terrace housing project, got him odd jobs, handouts. It wasn't enough. His cousins were in the business. He began dealing cocaine and crack to make ends meet.
As the winter months unrolled, Walker found himself growing colder. He had no time to feel pity. He lived the predatory days of black-on-black crime, supplied the hollow-eyed with endless rock, saw one friend rob another at gunpoint. He avoided arrest when a SWAT team raided the operation's gun- and drug-laden home base just minutes after he'd left. He watched as the mom of one of his associates came with cash in hand, and her son sold her a fix. Walker allowed himself a shiver, paused long enough to think, Je-sus. Then he got back to business. "She came to him, he gave it to her," Walker says. "It was just normal."
His coaches and most teammates didn't know what he was doing. His sister, Kerrie, didn't know. Walker kept playing, going to practice when he could, consuming the free food laid out afterward: green tea, hoagies, kielbasa, barbecue. Since he had begun playing his freshman year, football had provided an identity, given his chaotic life its only frame. The field was the one place in Aliquippa where the spiderweb's strands couldn't get much purchase.
The season ended, spring came, Walker's mother was released. Nobody in the business hassled him when he decided to stop dealing; his cousins were notorious.
The next fall, the 2004 season, Walker studied, cut grass for coaches and teachers, prepped for the SATs. In the fall he had 82 tackles and four sacks at defensive tackle, blocked three kicks. He was just a player and student again, tooling around in a 1985 Dodge Diplomat he'd bought for $750. He had scraped the rust off, repainted the car blood red and dubbed it the Red Baron. People still grin recalling Willie and that car, seemingly made for each other—both headed for the junkyard once, both proud and shining now. But Walker wasn't driving it that night in November, heading home from the game, when his heart started pounding as if to break through his chest.
For weeks he'd kept the thought at bay, but now it wouldn't be denied: My last game. Football saved me, but now it's over. The fear rushed through him, worse than on the worst days with his mom, worse than when a passing cop car slowed, worse than when he felt the weight of the Taurus .45 jammed in his pants. He had never been so scared. No practice, no workouts, nothing. College? He still had no offers. The van he was riding in took a left on Superior Avenue, engine gunning as the street rose under the wheels. He could see the lights of Valley Terrace looming when, without warning, he began to cry. Tears, silent sobs: He couldn't stop.
"Because going up that hill?" Walker says. "It was like driving into the mouth of a monster."
It was your quintessential melting pot," says Don Yannessa, an Aliquippa High graduate and the coach of its football team from 1972 through '88. "Italians lived in [the] Plan 11 [neighborhood], Serbians in Logstown or Plan 7, Greeks downtown. We had a large Jewish community. And they all got along. There were 30,000 people and paychecks every two weeks, and the stores were thriving. What a great town it was."
What remains is a stadium, perched high above the near-dead downtown. To reach it you make a right off Franklin Avenue, climb roller-coaster-steep Main Street and hook a right close to where, during the 2009 season, the team's brainy wideout escaped a drive-by shooting with two bullet holes in his pants leg. You walk toward the gates, seeing neither field nor grandstand. You wonder if you'll step off into an abyss, and, yes, you will. There's a reason they call it the Pit.
Carl A. Aschman Stadium, home of the Fighting Quips, was wedged into the hill's flank in the late 1930s, creating one of the nation's loveliest settings for football. But now, as you descend its ravaged wooden bleachers and crumbling concrete on a November game day, it provokes the dizzying fear that the whole ramshackle structure will at last release its grip and send hundreds of parents, coaches and fans—not to mention the Indian mascot, his horse and the flaming spear that quivers in the immaculate turf—hurtling to the street below.
Still, for opponents such disorientation, combined with the dungeonlike visitors' locker room, is a perversely welcome rite of passage. "You haven't played football in Western Pennsylvania," says an adult accompanying the saucer-eyed preps from Pittsburgh's Shady Side Academy, Aliquippa's first-round victims in the 2010 playoffs, "until you've played the Pit."
What also remains is a coaching staff of 19, 11 unpaid, all ignited by the standards set by their fathers and uncles, all former Quips but one. Mike Zmijanac never played a down of organized football. This past season the 67-year-old son of an Aliquippa waitress and an absent Marine sergeant became the winningest coach of the best high school program in a region that unearths talent like so many chunks of coal. Zmijanac is quick to say that he inherited a machine built by his celebrated predecessor, Yannessa, and when reminded that he's the only high school coach to have won Pennsylvania state titles in football and basketball, his first impulse is to point out that he's the only one to have lost championship games in both too.
But if Zmijanac's default mode is self-puncturing, if he tends to forget his players' names—instead giving them indelible tags such as Pottymouth, Frankenstein and Lunch—he also sets the tone of tough compassion used by assistant head coach Sherm McBride, defensive coordinator Dan (Peep) Short and the rest of the staff. The Quips are efficient, disciplined. The offense is simple. There's no taunting. Each player learns to call elders Sir.
"Tonight's the kind of night that I remember why I do this," Zmijanac says to his team just minutes before Aliquippa's final 2010 game at the Pit, the first-rounder against Shady Side. "You seniors: This is the last time you'll ever play on this field. This team: This is the last time you'll ever play together on this field. It's a special group of people that get to do this. Don't ever take it for granted. Make it special. Play Aliquippa football, play the game right, respect the people on the other side, and knock the crap out of 'em—and then help 'em up. Now for all those people who played here before and the ones who'll play here after: Our Father...." And they all bow their heads to pray.
The Pit on Friday night is the one place where Aliquippa now feels closest to Aliquippa then. Those who moved away find their way back: The old millworkers in wool hats gather under blankets in the senior citizens' seats, people wary of the streets gather here to greet old friends. White and black, young and old sit together, taking swigs from tiny bottles, commenting on the cold. The starters run out arm-in-arm with a cheerleader. The smell of gyros and cheese fries fills the air, the gravelly voice of the P.A. announcer says, "First-and-10, goooooo Quips!" and the masses softly answer, in less a cheer than a collective warning, "Yeeaaaah!"
"Did you get chills?" asks Sean Gilbert, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle and former Quip. "What football will do. Football's a religion sometimes."
We represent the struggle. The pain. The oppression. We represent the fight. This is Aliquippa.
—SEAN GILBERT, Aliquippa High, class of 1989
They are cocky, this crowd, and why not? Few corners of the nation, certainly none as small as Aliquippa, have produced so many big names. A man will be shot and wounded tonight on a street in Plan 11, not far from where Gilbert, NFL Hall of Fame tight end and coach Mike Ditka, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett, two-time Super Bowl champ Ty Law and Revis, the 2009 AFC Defensive Player of the Year, grew up. But there's little danger of a shooting at a Quips game.
"There is no drug dealing at the Pit, and rarely any violence," Walker says. "It really is sacred ground; it's like a miracle. You've got guys that, any other time of the day, they're going to try and rip each other's throats out, but they just walk past each other in the Pit. They're there to watch those kids play."
What remains is the team. Aliquippa lost another 10% of its population in the last decade, down to 10,548 residents; there were only 32 males in the high school's 2010 graduating class. Yet the Quips—from the fifth smallest high school in Western Pennsylvania, a Single A team fighting well above its weight—have averaged 10 wins a year for three decades, dominating AA competition, beating richer schools and towns, producing so many Division I-A players that it beggars belief.
Some on today's roster are sure they're next in line. Maybe it will be senior defensive lineman Zach Hooks, 6'6" and 286 pounds, whom Temple is looking at, or freshman running back Dravon Henry, who will romp for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Shady Side. Each season Zmijanac has to tell a few players, "You think you're next, but you're not. Someone lied to you."
Tonight, as always, they'll slap the plaque over the door that reads WE RULE OUR HOUSE as they spill out to the field. Then they'll destroy Shady Side 41--0. Next week it will be Beaver 34--0, then Ford City 26--7 before a 19--6 loss to South Fayette in Aliquippa's record 21st appearance in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League final. Before all that, though, they will put on their pads and tape their wrists. Too many will take black markers and write carefully on the tape. rip, it will say, on wrist after wrist. RIP KLJ SR. BDB; RIP EAG; RIP WALL; RIP UNCLE CLYDE; RIP TDW; RIP TMG.
Rest in Peace, Cousin. Brother. Friend. Father.
Then they won't look like boys anymore. Because what remains in Aliquippa, too, is a kind of war.
Football isn't kind. It wasn't invented to save men or to serve as a civic barrier against the ills unleashed by the end of an era. Fueled by obedience, reveling in brute force, dismissive of weakness, the game hardly seems nimble enough to withstand the social trends that made Aliquippa feel, over the past 40 years, like some corroding edge of the American Dream. Industrial collapse, race riots, massive layoffs, white flight, corporate greed, fatherless families, the scourge of crack: All battered this tiny town like a series of typhoons. It's as if the same mysterious alchemy that keeps producing Hall of Fame talent and a team with a record 13 WPIAL titles created an equally outsized appetite for destruction. Aliquippa takes everything to extremes.
But then, the tone was set early. "I was terrible," says Mike Ditka, who grew up in the 1940s and '50s. "I had to win, had to win when I played marbles, whatever I played. And I wasn't a good sport about losing." Ditka—Aliquippa's first college first-team All-America, first NFL first-round draft choice, first player to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl, first coach of a Super Bowl champion—established the template for commitment, the near-maniacal need to infuse mere games with life-and-death importance, which has only grown stronger with time. The mystery is why. Unlike today's players, Ditka grew up in an Aliquippa that had everything: jobs, community, a downtown complete with a soda shop, a sweet Main Street to cruise and the certainty that nothing would ever change.
After all, Aliquippa, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, was just one of many burgs built to process all that ore and coal wrested out of the hills, one more town full of people from Eastern and Southern Europe who kept the coke ovens fired and the stacks smoking 24 hours a day, 13,000 workers filling three daily shifts on the other side of the Aliquippa Tunnel. Jones & Laughlin Steel designed and built the town just after 1900 and divided it into 12 ethnically specific "plans," separating labor from management, hunkies from cake-eaters. But the soot still fell all over, dirtying your shirt collar even if you never set foot in the mill that stretched for seven miles along the Ohio River.
Those who moved away find their way back to the pit.
Ditka's parents, Mike and Charlotte, moved up from Carnegie, Pa., in 1941, but young Mike didn't see much of his dad until he was four. While the Aliquippa Works pumped out record tonnages of armor plate, shell forgings, bombs, landing craft, bullets and mortar tubing, proudly shaping the weapons to beat back Hitler and Tojo, Mike Sr. served in the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He came home to a job as a "burner"—welding boxcars on the mill railroad, his hands scarred by daily scorchings—and ruled the cramped house in the Linmar neighborhood like a drill instructor. The four kids had to be in bed by 7 p.m., and any misbehavior brought out the Marine belt.
Young Mike never once fought back. In sports, though, he was a terror: His way was the only way. In one Little League game Mike was catching for his younger brother Ashton when Ashton surrendered a few walks. Mike stopped the game, and they switched positions. During an American Legion game, when Ashton, in centerfield, dropped what would have been a game-ending fly, Mike charged off the pitcher's mound, chased Ashton over the fence and, Mike says, "whipped his ass." The Marine belt came out for that one. Word has it that Ashton, for being a bit lax in defending himself, also got a lash or two.
By the mid-1950s, football—relentless, down-the-throat running football—was the undisputed king of Aliquippa, a way to take on towns such as Ambridge and Beaver Falls in matchups that reflected the mills' blue-collar grind. Once coach Carl Aschman led Aliquippa to its first WPIAL title, in '52, the machine found its rhythm. "If you looked like a football player? The older people, the older athletes would get on your back: You're going out for football," says Frank Marocco, who was two years ahead of Ditka at Aliquippa High and was the Quips' coach from 1989 to '96. "They made you play whether you liked it or not."
Ditka, a scrawny 135 pounds as a sophomore at Aliquippa, struggled through the team's two-week training camp, starting off as fodder on the so-called "ghost battalion": Marocco and the rest of the seniors spent days running over him like so much dirt. Ditka would cry, wipe off the snot and scream, "Come on, hit me again!" And so they did. Aschman finally pulled him out of practice for his own protection, sending him off to clean latrines. After that Ditka tried quitting, but Aschman told him to wait. By the following fall Ditka had grown into his meat-hook hands and done enough push-ups to power a steam engine. Aschman would tutor him alone after practices: how to block, run patterns, catch the ball. Ditka started at linebacker and tight end. The team went undefeated and won the WPIAL title. When a teammate's leg was broken on a clean hit, Ditka walked into the opposing team's huddle and threatened to kill them all. Come winter Ditka would play basketball for coach Press Maravich, whose eight-year-old son, Pete—"A little s---!" says Ditka—could outshoot and outdribble anyone. When the Quips lost four football games during his senior year, Ditka set a team record for lockers trashed. After missing a layup that basketball season, he broke his wrist punching a wall.
Aschman sold him hard to recruiters, and Ditka had his pick of college football powers. The mill had been pumping for five decades; two generations, uneducated immigrants and their kids, had traded health and happiness for a decent house, three squares, a foothold in the new world. But the third generation saw the Aliquippa Works less as an opportunity than a cautionary tale. Ditka toured the place once in high school and never got over its filth. When he took the scholarship at Pitt in '57, it sent a message.
"Everybody in my family worked in the mill; that's what we knew," Yannessa says. "It wasn't until I was a junior and Mike was a senior that some people said, 'If you get your grades in order, you can get a scholarship playing football.' So many of our guys did. That's the first time the light came on: Maybe I can escape."
Nights, Ditka would sit up late and tell his mother, "One of these days I'm going to have four cars and a big house with a pool. You'll be able to drive 'em, but Daddy can't."
"He always said he was going to make money," Charlotte says. "I don't know where he got the idea." Ditka went to Pitt intending to be a dentist, though the thought of that glowering face, enraged by some stubborn molar, could make an ant swear off sugar. "Can you see that big hand in your mouth?" Charlotte says. But he made his money, all right, rattling teeth as an unstoppable tight end with Chicago and Dallas, blossoming into a near cult figure as coach of Da Bears and the Saints, and along the way gave some $80,000 back to the Quips' athletic program and raised another $250,000 in scholarships. Now, at 71, he owes no one, and his work consists mostly of being Mike Ditka on ESPN and showing up once a month at his self-named steak houses to shake hands.
Charlotte, 89, still lives in the house in Linmar. Mike's image papers the walls, and a small crystal bear squats on the coffee table above her son's words, still quoted around town: TOUGH TIMES DON'T LAST. TOUGH PEOPLE DO. Charlotte, like some of Mike's old teammates and buddies still in Aliquippa, dresses up and makes the 15-minute trip to his restaurant near the Pittsburgh Airport when she hears he's coming. Before she arrived in November, Ditka took on all comers at a back table, fielding compliments, repeatedly thanking every customer he could.
"I was going to be a dentist, but that's because of Coach Aschman," Ditka said. "He thought it would be a good idea if I came back to Aliquippa and fixed teeth." He gave a little shrug. "But eventually there was nobody to work on. I would've went broke."
Late September, leaves starting to fall. It's a sparkling Friday morning in the neighboring township of Hopewell, and Tony Dorsett stands at the fence ringing the high school stadium. He has just finished saying that the christening of Hopewell High's home field as Tony Dorsett Stadium in 2001, with 100 relatives present and fireworks and parachutists filling the sky, is the greatest honor he has known. Greater than receiving the Heisman Trophy or winning a national championship with Pitt, greater than being enshrined in the college and pro football halls of fame. "This," he says, "is the ultimate."
Yet something about that moment, this field, unsettles him. Dorsett goes silent, his eyes reddening; 13 seconds pass before he can utter another word. Now he points to the spot where he saw it, the image of his dead brother smiling. Tony was a ninth-grader in the fall of 1969, just months after he'd watched Melvin, age 27, collapse and die of a heart attack at their home, which was in Aliquippa's Plan 11 but fell within the Hopewell school district. Tony couldn't sleep in the house after that, but he never expected to be spooked at a football game. Playing against his buddies at Aliquippa High was worry enough.
"My brother used to always sit in that one spot, back up in this corner there," Dorsett says. "I know people might think I'm crazy, but I made a great play, and I looked up to see my family, and I saw him. I saw a vision. Clear as could be ...
"Melvin dropped out of school. But when I was a kid, we used to watch him. Talk about speed? My brothers all had speed, but he was the one I'd watch at the park on Fourth of July, everybody playing softball, and it was amazing the stuff he'd do. He ran from leftfield to rightfield and caught a fly ball—the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in my damn life."
Dorsett—and Hopewell—won that game, and he went on to win plenty more in high school, at Pitt and with the Cowboys, the only one of Wes and Myrtle Dorsett's five boys to make it out. The couple had moved to Aliquippa from Pittsboro, N.C., in 1944 amid the Great Migration's second wave, a rural-to-urban odyssey that transformed African-American culture and every Northern city. Wes never spent a day in school, but his every lesson was a variation of the one he gave while racing his boys, switch in hand, whipping their hams as they fled: Move. Tony visited his dad once outside the mill's open-hearth department and didn't recognize him under a mask of grime. "Come in the mill, you don't know if you're coming out," Wes said. "And if you do, you might be missing an arm or eye or leg. Do something better with your life."
When, at 16, Tony's friends took summer jobs at the mill, he refused. He never did go inside, not once. Eventually all four older brothers—each quicksilver fast, each eyed by coaches—made that ride through the Aliquippa Tunnel. Drink, drugs or dwindling motivation proved too hard to fight, and only Tony, the scared mama's boy with eyes so wide that Wes dubbed him Hawk, proved strong enough. So, yes, Dorsett feels pride when he sees his name on the sign at his old school, but it's diluted by guilt and mystery. At 56 years old he still asks, Why me?
Another reason the christening ceremony felt so miraculous is that Dorsett was sure it couldn't happen. Rename a stadium in Hopewell after a black kid from Aliquippa? Never. Because Hopewell, the wealthy, spacious Pittsburgh suburb that borders Aliquippa, had, by the time Dorsett came along, become a haven for whites bolting the town—and many looked down their noses at all they'd left behind.
When Doresett's friends took jobs at the mill, he refused.
By 1970, Aliquippa's population was 25% African-American and had shrunk to 22,277. An explosion of racial strife, the tail end of nearly three years of nationwide integration battles and civil rights protests, only fueled the exodus. In May 1970, Aliquippa schools were shuttered after confrontations between white and black teenagers resulted in the suspension of 54 students. According to a state report, eight white students said, when questioned, that "they would be willing to get killed fighting blacks." Three weeks later racial clashes spilled from the junior high to the streets, leaving 11 students injured and dozens arrested. That night 250 whites clashed with police after demanding the release of four white youths. More than 30 gunshots were fired; tear gas filled the air. Whites and blacks divvied up territory.
"You were only allowed up in the school [area], where the white people lived, during school," says Sherm McBride, the assistant head coach. "If you ran into a certain type, you were getting jumped on. Vice versa for whites: If they were downtown, they were getting jumped on by black guys. And in the school, from what my brothers say, there wasn't a day you didn't have guys carrying switchblades."
The state report also relates stories of "battles between police and alleged snipers" in Aliquippa, an "angry charging mob of chanting whites" confronting blacks in Plan 11, blacks and whites arming themselves, and whites organizing neighborhood protective groups. Ditka's dad, Big Mike, was one of the patrol leaders, his house but a minute's drive from the mostly black housing project Linmar Terrace. "They were going to clean out the white people," Charlotte says.
Yannessa, who had left Aliquippa in '68 to teach and coach at nearby Ambridge, spent free periods listening to reports over the police scanner. By then the Quips' football program had been gutted. Aschman had a heart attack and stopped coaching after winning his last WPIAL title in '65, and soon whites and blacks wouldn't play together; the '70 team fielded just 16 players. Aliquippa won 12 games over the next seven years, losing seven of eight to Hopewell, before Yannessa, a teammate of Ditka's and disciple of Aschman's, came home to take over in 1972.
"I had never seen a community change so dramatically in a negative sense," Yannessa says of Aliquippa. "It was all racism, white flight. They wouldn't even let the kids play nighttime football. You're getting your ass kicked, and by the third quarter you're playing in front of 18 people? It was ugly."
Meanwhile, a zoning fluke—the line drawn just 30 yards from the front door—had placed the Dorsetts' home in the Hopewell district. While the boosters at Aliquippa might have finagled a way to keep him, Tony's parents took one look at the stable, peaceful halls of Hopewell High and put him on the bus headed there. Within two years Vikings coach Butch Ross had the most spectacular running back yet seen in Western Pennsylvania.
It wasn't easy for Dorsett, though. He was one of only a handful of blacks among more than 1,500 Hopewell students, living "in two worlds," as he puts it: by night a resident of the Hill, hardscrabble and all black, by day a student in what he and his friends called Whiteyland. But Dorsett had football to insulate him, and he says the two-world split prepared him to deal with just about any social situation. In fact, the only thing Hopewell didn't prepare him for was the notion that his school, state—hell, entire country—could evolve, that white and black kids would someday date without inciting comment, that a black man could see his name raised on the most revered structure in town.
Of course, change didn't come overnight. At Aliquippa High, Yannessa walked into the gym his first day as coach, saw his prospective team self-segregated by race and demanded that they mix—or else. It didn't help that even the booster club had separated into black and white factions. But within a year the Quips began to win. A black steelworker named Charlie Lay served as a goodwill conduit to the white community, setting up mixed meetings of parents, boosters and players in white and black homes, buying drinks in white bars and black, and the battle lines began to soften. Yannessa, along with Zmijanac, his defensive coordinator, had been cocky enough to think he could calm the waters, bring back the old days, and he felt even cockier now. Then, in the fall of 1977, the town cracked again.
A fight between a black and a white student outside the school cafeteria ended with the white student stabbed, and all the tamped-down tensions erupted. Aliquippa High closed for three days. After that police roamed the halls, and every day brought another fight with a knife or chain. Teachers locked their doors and hid. For the first time Yannessa felt the football program, and the town, were surely lost.
He was wrong. Although town and school were savagely split, the team's core was not. Short, McBride and five other players, a mix of juniors and seniors, black and white, met the weekend before the '78 season opener and heard Short demand, "This has got to stop somewhere." The next day, after the team entered the gym and, for the first time in years, divided itself into white and black factions, the seven players walked together to the center of the floor. "You're either with us," they announced, "or you're out."
"No one left that gym," McBride says. "Everybody came together as one." Not long after, some felt a shift in Aliquippa's air. Black and white players were seen double-dating, sometimes interracially. The crowds at games began to mix. In the off-season Yannessa insisted that the annual banquets for the black and white booster clubs be combined, and it happened.
"Football brought the families, the community, everything back together," McBride says, walking behind the Pit's grandstand. "You'd go down to the mill where everybody's mother or father was working and hear, 'You going to the game this week?' If you wanted to rob a bank in Aliquippa? Friday night at eight o'clock was the best time."
Tony Dorsett is walking downtown. A car passes, slows: Why would anyone be walking ... wait. Was that Hawk? It has been years since he's been down to Franklin Avenue. Most storefronts are empty now, mocking like a toothless grin the spiffy red banners on the light posts that plead, TAKE PRIDE IN ALIQUIPPA. Two men, their clothing loose and fraying, appear and head Dorsett's way. They stop, shake hands, chat. "Man," Dorsett says. "Everything's shut down."
"Only one thing that ain't shut down, Tony," one replies. "The bullets."
Aliquippa is, in one sense, like a big city: People warn you away from certain spots. There's a safe stretch along Brodhead Road, but the occasional burglary keeps residents edgy. You don't want to be on Franklin Avenue at night, and places that used to be crime-free, like Main Street just outside the high school, have grown grimmer. "You can be anywhere," says Revis. "Every time somebody gets killed, I'm getting a call: 'Stephen died.' 'This guy died.' I have been home and talked to somebody, and two weeks later I'm getting a call like, 'He's dead.' It's not safe. You can die just like that."
It's not rare to hear someone declare Aliquippa dead too. The streets give off a postapocalyptic feel, at once simmering and still. You can't be sure that what you see is a mercilessly dismantled past or a nightmare vision of the future—a vivid preview of what can happen when a nation ships its manufacturing work, the kind that once offered blue-collar security, overseas.
What remains in Aliquippa, in essence, is a kind of war.
The J&L mill, battered by cheap, inventive Japanese products and taken over by the Ohio-based LTV Corporation, began shutting down nearly 30 years ago, and closed for good in 2000. Pittsburgh has made a successful transition to the new economy, but "Aliquippa's in a weird place," says Pitt labor economist Chris Briem. "It's not the center of the region, it's not the city, it's not quite rural. What is the competitiveness of towns that used to have a reason for being—and don't anymore?"
Yet others insist that a molten stream of the old immigrant sensibility, alloyed with the hard-won unity forged in the '70s, still courses through the town. Aliquippans say hard times weeded out the weak, and only the strong remain. They see a drive among the youngest, especially the athletes who've lived entire lives amid the ruins, that keeps pushing them to win against ridiculous odds.
"My sister was murdered," says 35-year-old Dwan Walker, a former receiver for Aliquippa who intends to run for mayor this spring. Standing behind the Aliquippa stands during a September game, Walker describes how his sister, Deirdre, 33, was killed in the fall of 2009 by James Moon, a 24-year-old former Quips running back who, the Aliquippa police say, was jealous of Deirdre's relationship with another man. "She was shot and killed in front of my nephew, shot three times," Walker says. Moon then turned the gun on himself. Afterward, Walker says, "I wanted to leave. I'm mad at this place every day. But I have never felt so much love in my life as I felt from [Aliquippans] when my sister was murdered. My Facebook page exploded; I had to shut it down, there were so many messages.
"All in all, I wouldn't trade Aliquippa for nothing in the world. We're going to keep fighting. You'll read the paper tomorrow: ALIQUIPPA WON. That's all we need. Because it's heart, man. It's pride. It's a mystery, how you keep wanting to come back."
"Aliquippa will never die," says Aileen Gilbert, Sean Gilbert's mom and Revis's grandmother. "On the surface it looks like a ghost town. It looks desolate. But I don't see desolation."
What she does see is spirit, handed down from parent to son, that can be best summed up in four words: no track, no problem. Because the story that best illustrates the town's mix of triumph and tragedy is only tangentially related to football. It involves McBride, who doubles as the Quips' track coach; four football players who ran sprints; and a long jumper named Byron Wilson.
With no running track, the Quips practice in the school parking lot, spikes on asphalt. Before 2005 an Aliquippa team had never won a state title. Yet at that spring's state championships, against schools fielding up to 20 boys, Aliquippa won its first team title with just those five.
The sprinters finished one-five-eight in the 100 meters, took second in the 200 and won the 4 × 100 relay. But to claim the title the team would need points from Wilson, who rarely worked hard at practice and was seeded 21st of 24 competitors. After he fouled on his first two jumps, there wasn't much hope. "It wasn't like Byron had technique," says Michael Washington, one of the football player--sprinters. On his third jump, however, Wilson stuck it: 22'3¼", good for first place and 43 team points. Aliquippa won the championship by two points.
"When he called, you could hear it in his voice; it was really gratifying," says Andre Davis, Wilson's stepfather, who had raised him from age three. "To me and his mother, it meant, Thank God. Now he knows that he has a talent. He realizes if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish something." His parents hung the medals on their bedroom mirror so they could see them every day when they woke. They hang there still.
It was, all admit, the kind of Hollywood finish capable of changing a life. Ask McBride what happened to Wilson, though, and his eyes drop. Wilson had a scholarship to run track at California (Pa.) University under Olympic great Roger Kingdom. "Guess what," McBride says. "He shot a guy. Here at Aliquippa you can be top dog one day and in the wrong place at the wrong time the next." McBride pauses. "Great kid. Father is a chief of police here."
Andre Davis is, indeed, Aliquippa's assistant chief of police, a member of the department for 24 years. He has battled rising gang activity in the housing projects and now in Plan 12. His stepson's case was different. Drugs or turf weren't the issue so much as personality: Soon after high school Wilson's hot temper, sharp tongue and inability to back down inflamed the boys from Linmar Terrace, and word spread. "A lot of guys wanted to kill him," Revis says. "You'd hear that all the time."
Revis saw it too. On a visit home during his sophomore year at Pitt he went to Curenton's Mini Market on the Hill to buy the latest Air Jordans. Wilson showed up talking to a friend, Revis's half-brother Jaquay. Revis exchanged pleasantries with a male standing by the door, a Linmar lookout guy who complimented Revis on his college career. Minutes later, as Revis walked out, shoes in hand, a white car pulled up and a man jumped out shooting. Wilson and Jaquay hit the pavement. Revis dived behind a car, where he ended up face-to-face with the now-panicked lookout. They stared at each other as the bullets flew.
"My heart is beating so fast, and you just hear the gunshots: Boom, boom, boom!" Revis says. "I'm like, Yo, my brother might be shot, then I heard the car pull off. Nobody got shot. Byron got up and started shooting. I'm shaking. My car was shot up; it had a couple bullets in it."
Still, Revis loves Aliquippa. He feels a need whenever he's in town to get back to the Hill, to the street he grew up on. The always crowded 13-room family home on Seventh Avenue is where Ty Law would stop by when Darrelle was in elementary school, where his uncle Sean Gilbert's teammates would congregate laughing, where Darrelle would step out to stare up at the stars and dream of flying to outer space. When he was three years old, his mother, Diana, would find him waiting summer nights on the step out front; she was puzzled until one evening Sean, doing his preseason training, came chugging up the hill. He'd reach the top, tap Darrelle and then turn and jog back down. "Let him stay right here," Sean said. "I'm going to keep touching him."
Revis ran some with a junior Griffin Heights crew and backed out when they started flashing guns. But these days he doesn't want to seem stuck-up. In Aliquippa he makes a point of talking to everyone who stops him, even crackheads, "just to let them know I still know where home is, and I still come back."
He knows this might not be wise. But Revis believes that Aliquippa's lunacy helped make him one of the best cornerbacks alive, and besides, he's one of many who say that the end of the town's biggest menace has brought a measure of calm. In August 2009, Anthony (Ali) Dorsett, 34, the son of Tony's brother Keith, pleaded guilty to charges of dealing crack and powder cocaine in a joint federal, county and local crackdown on a drug ring that had operated out of Linmar Terrace from '03 to '08. Twelve other men, described by federal prosecutors as sellers or gun-toting "shooters," have been sentenced; Dorsett, the acknowledged ringleader, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 17. He could face life in prison.
When the arrests were announced in December 2008, Tony Dorsett was appalled by the coverage. He has lived in Texas since joining the Cowboys in 1977, but seemingly every news story labeled Ali as "Tony Dorsett's nephew." His own son, Anthony Jr., a former NFL player also living in Dallas, was at first mistakenly reported to be the drug dealer, and Tony had to quell rumors that the feds had seized some of his property, including the house he bought for his mother with his first signing bonus. All untrue, Tony says, though his son had been involved with Ali in a real estate venture.
Davis was involved in the sweep, which was dubbed Operation Enough Is Enough. Since then Aliquippa has indeed seen "a big change for the better," he says, with fewer reports of shots fired and far less loitering at the Linmar Projects. But any satisfaction he feels about it is tempered by the fact that in 2006 Byron Wilson plea-bargained a 15-month sentence after pulling up next to his Linmar enemies in a car and opening fire. Two years later he wounded two men in a bar shootout, for which he has just begun serving a one- to two-year prison sentence.
Since then Davis has gotten job offers outside Aliquippa. He won't leave. He played football for the Quips, and on fall Saturdays he referees for the WPIAL and the Beaver County Youth League, which includes the Little Quips—four levels of junior teams from ages five to 12—who play to crowds even more jacked than Friday night's. Davis thinks he's figured out why Aliquippa, in spite of everything, keeps producing greatness.
"You get through here and the hard times? Everything else is easy," Davis says. "They've survived not eating at night, or went through watching a brother or sister get killed. I personally had to see my son arrested and prosecuted and put in jail. So what could be harder? Playing football? That is nothing."
Sirens? They almost don't hear the sirens anymore. But when, early in the evening of Oct. 7, Quips players and coaches saw the helicopter flying in low, its blades whap-whap-whapping over the Pit and beyond, the usually smooth rhythm of practice began to stutter. A chopper is never good news. Dread spread, and soon running backs coach Timmie Patrick, a Beaver County detective, had learned the latest awful news. Medevac: man stabbed at Curenton's Mini Market, and one of their own.
Art (Rooster) Motton, 47, with multiple wounds to his neck and trunk, was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital and pronounced dead, and 16-year-old Aliquippa High student James D. Motton, a nephew whom Art had raised as a son, was charged with the murder. (His trial is pending.) Word was that the two had argued over damage to Art's car, but the motive almost didn't matter. Up at the football field, shock leaped from face to face.
Art Motton had been one of the hardest hitters in Quips history, a 170-pound cornerback whose ferocity had been a legend for 30 years. The hit Rooster put on Belle Vernon tailback Marlon McIntyre—all 220 pounds of him laid out, unconscious—on the first play of the Aliquippa's 1980 playoff win was almost as devastating as the line Motton delivered walking away. "Call the ambulance," Rooster said. "He'll be here for a while." Motton had had his troubles—a crack addiction, since kicked, an unsteady marriage—but lately seemed to have found his footing. For the next week Zmijanac found himself fighting back tears.
It has been a particularly grueling year for the Quips. Not so much the football: Aliquippa finished 12--1 and lost the WPIAL final largely because it fumbled three times inside South Fayette's 20-yard line. Of its 45 players, a couple have a shot at a D-I scholarship and 35 to 40 will be back next fall. But last May former Aliquippa defensive end Kevin Johnson, father of the senior who had escaped with bullet holes in his pants leg in 2009, took six bullets and died in Beaver, police say, after he forced his way into the home of a former girlfriend. Then, a month before Motton's death, assistant chief Davis and volunteers called the Council of Men and Fathers found it necessary to patrol outside the home game against Beaver Falls, defusing any possible violence in retaliation for the August shooting death in Beaver Falls of Stephen Hardy Jr., 22, a law-abiding former Quips quarterback about to graduate from Robert Morris University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
There's no pattern. Kids who study hard and avoid trouble have been destroyed; kids once immersed in crime have grown into caring citizens. "Half of them make it, and half of them don't—and you never know which half it's going to be," says Zmijanac, who took over the Quips' football program in 1997. "It's joyful, and then it breaks your heart—all in the same day."
Zmijanac estimates that he loses a half dozen players to the street each year, and he has a long record of suspending stars. But the team has an open-door policy: "If he wants to come back, we'll always bring him in," McBride says. "No matter how many times they fail. Our job is not to give up on them."
That's why you'll hear Zmijanac call a kid like Willie Walker, former crack dealer, "wonderful." Because maybe, just maybe, Walker beat the spiderweb. He negotiated the final seven months of school without football, weathered the disappointment of 2005 Signing Day coming and going without one offer. A day later a coach from California (Pa.) University came to Aliquippa with a full scholarship for him. It wasn't until the fall of '06, after he'd moved to the campus 60 miles away, bought books and been brutally sandwiched by a pair of massive twins on his first collegiate snap, that Walker allowed himself to believe: I'm here. I finally made it.
Four years later Walker, a defensive lineman, led the Vulcans to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II tournament and was named to the AP's Little All-America first team. There were bumps: His girlfriend in Aliquippa had a baby his freshman year, and he wanted to be involved, but two of his cousins and an uncle were indicted in the roundup of Ali Dorsett's crew, and Willie's mom—stepping up at last—told him to stay at school, away from the trouble. She helped out with the baby in Aliquippa and brought her on game days to watch Willie play. Sometimes some of his former confederates would come up to cheer him on too. He intends to graduate. He still keeps the Red Baron immaculate.
This, of course, isn't a picture of conventional mores, but Aliquippa rarely allows for black-and-white assertions of right and wrong. The town is small, the lines blurred and ever shifting; it is, indeed, a web in which everyone knows or is related to everyone else. Ty Law grew up in the house once occupied by Sean Gilbert's mother. Willie Walker stayed good friends with Byron Wilson, even though it was his own kin who wanted to kill him. "And are you ready for this?" says Short, the Quips' defensive coordinator, one day in November. "Ali Dorsett is married to my daughter."
When he first learned about the relationship, years ago, Short tried warning the drug dealer off. The next time he saw the couple together, he punched Dorsett in the face. "But he's actually a pretty good guy," Short says, shrugging. "Just trying to get that easy money—and now he's going to pay for it."
People often describe the Aliquippa football program as an oasis in the desert. It's not that tidy. When asked if he'd like his two-year-old son, Jayden, who lives with his mother in Beaver Falls, to be a Quip, Revis hesitates, then says, "I don't want him in Aliquippa. If Aliquippa can pick their school up, and their coaches, and move somewhere else? Yes." But that's impossible. The team is the town, its pride and pain.
In July, Tony Dorsett returned for the funeral of his 61-year-old brother, Tyrone, a longtime drug user whom Tony could never pry away from Aliquippa. As he drove the broken streets, past the weeds creeping down out of wood structures as if to consume the place whole, past the monument to the workers of Jones & Laughlin Steel, he was hit by a force hard to understand. For the first time he told his wife, Janet, "Let's look at some houses." He wants to move back, maybe to Pittsburgh, maybe somewhere closer. "Every time I come back, the feeling's there, more and more," Dorsett said in September, steering his Chrysler 300 up Monaca Road. "It hurts me to see it, but this is Aliquippa. This is me. This is where I got everything."
He hits the gas going up Kennedy Boulevard, takes a right on Brodhead Road, crosses the border into Center Township and veers onto Chapel Road. His mother is up there now, waiting. Dementia has been a patient thief, but Myrtle still thrills to Tony's voice. He pulls into the driveway. She's sitting by the door and looks up blankly—face so youthful under the cottony hair—at the man by the black car now standing and waving. She wiggles her fingers back. "She's wondering who I am," Tony says. "She sits on the porch a lot these days."
Dorsett walks up the little path, shoulders squared, the usual roll gone out of his step. He leans down and hugs her, not too hard. The front door is wide open. Soon they'll have lunch, mother and son, in a dimmer light, survivors holding fast to all that's left of home.