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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."
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."