Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town

Veteran Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price (Pitching Around Fidel; Heart of the Game) captures a microcosm of the 20th-century United States, as the town of Aliquippa, in western Pennsylvania, flooded with people in search of economic opportunity, and the generations that followed discovered the potential jackpot of athletic prowess. Playing Through the Whistle is the rich history of the Poles, Croats, Ukrainians, Serbs, Italians and African Americans who worked in the huge Jones & Laughlin steel mill and played ball for Aliquippa High School. Price takes us through the century's wars; the groundbreaking 1930s labor and 1960s civil rights legislation; and Aliquippa's unparalleled string of National Football League stars, including Mike Ditka, Ty Law, Tony Dorsett, Sean Gilbert and Darrelle Revis. If the growth of Jones & Laughlin created this melting pot, Price suggests, "Sport is where the melt in the pot began."

The "Quips" still play their games in "The Pit," built in 1937 when the town was growing--and it's still "sacred space, a bubble that gang conflict and crime almost never penetrate." But Jones & Laughlin closed the mill in 1988, and Aliquippa is barely holding on with a population now under 10,000 and the possibility of the high school merging with that of a neighboring community. Price dramatically chronicles the town's rise and fall: the early union labor strife, war sacrifices, segregation, race riots, drugs, the economic recession. Through it all, Aliquippa keeps hammering out football stars. Football may be all they have, and the Quips' future NFL aspirants are coached never to give up--to keep playing through the whistle. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

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