SI Vault
S.L. Price
January 31, 2011
Over five decades of economic decline and racial conflict, a Western Pennsylvania mill town has found unity and hope on the football field
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January 31, 2011

The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa

Over five decades of economic decline and racial conflict, a Western Pennsylvania mill town has found unity and hope on the football field

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What remains is the team. Aliquippa lost another 10% of its population in the last decade, down to 10,548 residents; there were only 32 males in the high school's 2010 graduating class. Yet the Quips—from the fifth smallest high school in Western Pennsylvania, a Single A team fighting well above its weight—have averaged 10 wins a year for three decades, dominating AA competition, beating richer schools and towns, producing so many Division I-A players that it beggars belief.

Some on today's roster are sure they're next in line. Maybe it will be senior defensive lineman Zach Hooks, 6'6" and 286 pounds, whom Temple is looking at, or freshman running back Dravon Henry, who will romp for 177 yards and two touchdowns against Shady Side. Each season Zmijanac has to tell a few players, "You think you're next, but you're not. Someone lied to you."

Tonight, as always, they'll slap the plaque over the door that reads WE RULE OUR HOUSE as they spill out to the field. Then they'll destroy Shady Side 41--0. Next week it will be Beaver 34--0, then Ford City 26--7 before a 19--6 loss to South Fayette in Aliquippa's record 21st appearance in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League final. Before all that, though, they will put on their pads and tape their wrists. Too many will take black markers and write carefully on the tape. rip, it will say, on wrist after wrist. RIP KLJ SR. BDB; RIP EAG; RIP WALL; RIP UNCLE CLYDE; RIP TDW; RIP TMG.

Rest in Peace, Cousin. Brother. Friend. Father.

Then they won't look like boys anymore. Because what remains in Aliquippa, too, is a kind of war.

Football isn't kind. It wasn't invented to save men or to serve as a civic barrier against the ills unleashed by the end of an era. Fueled by obedience, reveling in brute force, dismissive of weakness, the game hardly seems nimble enough to withstand the social trends that made Aliquippa feel, over the past 40 years, like some corroding edge of the American Dream. Industrial collapse, race riots, massive layoffs, white flight, corporate greed, fatherless families, the scourge of crack: All battered this tiny town like a series of typhoons. It's as if the same mysterious alchemy that keeps producing Hall of Fame talent and a team with a record 13 WPIAL titles created an equally outsized appetite for destruction. Aliquippa takes everything to extremes.

But then, the tone was set early. "I was terrible," says Mike Ditka, who grew up in the 1940s and '50s. "I had to win, had to win when I played marbles, whatever I played. And I wasn't a good sport about losing." Ditka—Aliquippa's first college first-team All-America, first NFL first-round draft choice, first player to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl, first coach of a Super Bowl champion—established the template for commitment, the near-maniacal need to infuse mere games with life-and-death importance, which has only grown stronger with time. The mystery is why. Unlike today's players, Ditka grew up in an Aliquippa that had everything: jobs, community, a downtown complete with a soda shop, a sweet Main Street to cruise and the certainty that nothing would ever change.

After all, Aliquippa, about 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, was just one of many burgs built to process all that ore and coal wrested out of the hills, one more town full of people from Eastern and Southern Europe who kept the coke ovens fired and the stacks smoking 24 hours a day, 13,000 workers filling three daily shifts on the other side of the Aliquippa Tunnel. Jones & Laughlin Steel designed and built the town just after 1900 and divided it into 12 ethnically specific "plans," separating labor from management, hunkies from cake-eaters. But the soot still fell all over, dirtying your shirt collar even if you never set foot in the mill that stretched for seven miles along the Ohio River.

Ditka's parents, Mike and Charlotte, moved up from Carnegie, Pa., in 1941, but young Mike didn't see much of his dad until he was four. While the Aliquippa Works pumped out record tonnages of armor plate, shell forgings, bombs, landing craft, bullets and mortar tubing, proudly shaping the weapons to beat back Hitler and Tojo, Mike Sr. served in the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He came home to a job as a "burner"—welding boxcars on the mill railroad, his hands scarred by daily scorchings—and ruled the cramped house in the Linmar neighborhood like a drill instructor. The four kids had to be in bed by 7 p.m., and any misbehavior brought out the Marine belt.

Young Mike never once fought back. In sports, though, he was a terror: His way was the only way. In one Little League game Mike was catching for his younger brother Ashton when Ashton surrendered a few walks. Mike stopped the game, and they switched positions. During an American Legion game, when Ashton, in centerfield, dropped what would have been a game-ending fly, Mike charged off the pitcher's mound, chased Ashton over the fence and, Mike says, "whipped his ass." The Marine belt came out for that one. Word has it that Ashton, for being a bit lax in defending himself, also got a lash or two.

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