A senior Sports Illustrated writer tells a multigenerational story about Aliquippa, a Pennsylvania steel town, and its legendary high school football team.
Heavy industry and football share the same DNA, writes Price (Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America, 2009, etc.). Both feature a hierarchical management structure; both involve collective striving, with various skills merging to produce the desired result; both “depend on—even celebrate—the implicit trade of health for money” or celebrity. Since the early 1900s, when the J&L Steel Company designed and built the town, until today, as surely as the blast furnaces once reliably churned out pig iron, the Quips have won a succession of regional and state championships, producing an astonishing number of football stars, most notably Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis. Price thoroughly explores the football saga, focusing on four particularly successful coaches and their teams, but this is no mere sports story. The author produces an artful mix of history, economics, sociology, and athletics. He makes room for sketches of distinguished, nonsports native sons (composer Henry Mancini), a reform-minded governor’s wife, a J&L official who bossed the town, and Aliquippa’s first black mayor. As he travels through the decades, he packs the narrative with telling episodes: the presidential visits of John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, a landmark Supreme Court labor case slapping down J&L, the high school walkouts of the 1960s, protesting the lack of black cheerleaders. Price’s especially touching engravings of “promise squandered,” those chewed up and spit out by Aliquippa’s tough environment, contrast powerfully with the tales of football triumph.
From the rigidly stratified life in the 1920s and ’30s during J&L’s “despotic prime,” to the brief, postwar golden age, “a moment of civic equipoise,” to today’s “company town without a company,” where the combination of unemployment, drugs, and crime crushes hope, Price’s football story is really that of America’s Rust Belt in poignant miniature.