Thursday, November 24, 2016

Playing Through the Whistle by S.L. Price

Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football and an American Town by S.L. Price was a really good book from the Sports Illustrated writer who has penned three other books I've enjoyed, Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey Into the Heart of Cuban Sports and especially Far Afield: A Sports Writer's Odyssey and Heart of the Game: Life, Death and Mercy in Minor League America.

Playing Through the Whistle expands greatly on a feature for SI several year ago and the book is a look at the dying town of Aliquippa, PA and high level football from a high school that's produced NFL stars Mike Ditka, Ty Law, Sean Gilbert, and Darrelle Revis. Additionally from Aliquippa were Henry Mancini, composer of Moon River, the father of basketball star Pete Maravich, and former Surgeon General Jesse Steinfeld.

Price wrote of how early Aliquippa was the story of immigrants, people who came with nothing but the desire to work hard and who formed a life, for many of them through their labors on behalf of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation (or J&L Aliquippa Works) in town. Towards the beginning of the book, the struggle between the employer and unions coming in is chronicled and then later on, racial tension in town (and America as a whole) detailed. In 1962, some black players walking off the football team to protest the lack of any black cheerleaders on the squad, and then Price provides remarkable reading about the fights in town between blacks and whites in the 1970's. In many ways, the book is a history of class and race in America, told through the prism of the town, football in it, and a struggle between sports as a positive force and societal and economic problems off the field.

Another major local sports star that Price wrote about was former Cowboys star Tony Dorsett, who played for nearby Hopewell Senior High in the early 1970's as Aliquippa High was in the quagmire of racial tension and constant fights. Dorsett not going to Aliquippa High School echoed what many families who could were doing, moving their kids out of Aliquippa public schools, either by sending them to private schools or just moving away to areas like that covered by Hopewell High. From an economic perspective, Aliquippa Works in 1979 employed 10,000 people, then in 1981 the bleed of jobs began and by 1985 there were only 700 remaining. As jobs were leaving town, crack cocaine came to Aliquippa in the mid 1980's and the drug trade, and accompanying violence, hit the town hard. Aliquippa High School was often a dangerous place and for many there, it was a choice between football or the streets, with each pulling on them.

The book closes out with modern day Aliquippa and paints a picture of a hard town and a hard life for those who live there, with things seemingly going the wrong direction. Some people succeed and get out, but it's a tough go for the place when the primary goal for those looking to achieve something positive includes them leaving.