Review: Playing Through the Whistle

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, lived in its segregated, numerically identified company town "plans," and played ball for Aliquippa High School. In creative nonfiction journalistic style like that of Pete Hamill or Gay Talese, Price takes us through the century's wars; the presidencies of FDR, JFK, Nixon, Clinton and Bush; 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."

How this small town outside Pittsburgh became such a football powerhouse is an enigma--as one resident says, "It's in the water. If I gave you a cup of water right now, you would run a forty in four flat!" Price, however, draws a different conclusion with a detailed picture of the hard life of a "mill hunkie," where, regardless of race or ethnicity, 10,000 workers sweltered through long shifts until the whistle blew. And then did it again for a lifetime. "With its bone-snapping tackles, minimal protections, and masses toiling in syncopated fury... [football] channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill, and mine."

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 real 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. Revis was the last big-time all-state graduate, in 2003, but the 2015 Quips again made it all the way to the state tournament finals. With the J&L mill gone, good economic options are now few for the young. As Price writes, "Today's low-wage, low-security service industry jobs offer little choice.... The forked road offering careers in cut potatoes or crack, McDonald's or a meth lab." 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.

Shelf Talker: Playing Through the Whistle is an omnibus modern history of the United States as played out in the football ethos of small town Aliquippa, Pa.

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