"My brother used to always sit in that one spot, back up in this corner there," Dorsett says. "I know people might think I'm crazy, but I made a great play, and I looked up to see my family, and I saw him. I saw a vision. Clear as could be....
"Melvin dropped out of school. But when I was a kid, we used to watch him. Talk about speed? My brothers all had speed, but he was the one I'd watch at the park on Fourth of July, everybody playing softball, and it was amazing the stuff he'd do. He ran from leftfield to rightfield and caught a fly ball—the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen in my damn life."
Dorsett—and Hopewell—won that game, and he went on to win plenty more in high school, at Pitt and with the Cowboys, the only one of Wes and Myrtle Dorsett's five boys to make it out. The couple had moved to Aliquippa from Pittsboro, N.C., in 1944 amid the Great Migration's second wave, a rural-to-urban odyssey that transformed African-American culture and every Northern city. Wes never spent a day in school, but his every lesson was a variation of the one he gave while racing his boys, switch in hand, whipping their hams as they fled: Move. Tony visited his dad once outside the mill's open-hearth department and didn't recognize him under a mask of grime. "Come in the mill, you don't know if you're coming out," Wes said. "And if you do, you might be missing an arm or eye or leg. Do something better with your life."
When, at 16, Tony's friends took summer jobs at the mill, he refused. He never did go inside, not once. Eventually all four older brothers—each quicksilver fast, each eyed by coaches—made that ride through the Aliquippa Tunnel. Drink, drugs or dwindling motivation proved too hard to fight, and only Tony, the scared mama's boy with eyes so wide that Wes dubbed him Hawk, proved strong enough. So, yes, Dorsett feels pride when he sees his name on the sign at his old school, but it's diluted by guilt and mystery. At 56 years old he still asks, Why me?
Another reason the christening ceremony felt so miraculous is that Dorsett was sure it couldn't happen. Rename a stadium in Hopewell after a black kid from Aliquippa? Never. Because Hopewell, the wealthy, spacious Pittsburgh suburb that borders Aliquippa, had, by the time Dorsett came along, become a haven for whites bolting the town—and many looked down their noses at all they'd left behind.
By 1970, Aliquippa's population was 25% African-American and had shrunk to 22,277. An explosion of racial strife, the tail end of nearly three years of nationwide integration battles and civil rights protests, only fueled the exodus. In May 1970, Aliquippa schools were shuttered after confrontations between white and black teenagers resulted in the suspension of 54 students. According to a state report, eight white students said, when questioned, that "they would be willing to get killed fighting blacks." Three weeks later racial clashes spilled from the junior high to the streets, leaving 11 students injured and dozens arrested. That night 250 whites clashed with police after demanding the release of four white youths. More than 30 gunshots were fired; tear gas filled the air. Whites and blacks divvied up territory.
"You were only allowed up in the school [area], where the white people lived, during school," says Sherm McBride, the assistant head coach. "If you ran into a certain type, you were getting jumped on. Vice versa for whites: If they were downtown, they were getting jumped on by black guys. And in the school, from what my brothers say, there wasn't a day you didn't have guys carrying switchblades."
The state report also relates stories of "battles between police and alleged snipers" in Aliquippa, an "angry charging mob of chanting whites" confronting blacks in Plan 11, blacks and whites arming themselves, and whites organizing neighborhood protective groups. Ditka's dad, Big Mike, was one of the patrol leaders, his house but a minute's drive from the mostly black housing project Linmar Terrace. "They were going to clean out the white people," Charlotte says.
Yannessa, who had left Aliquippa in '68 to teach and coach at nearby Ambridge, spent free periods listening to reports over the police scanner. By then the Quips' football program had been gutted. Aschman had a heart attack and stopped coaching after winning his last WPIAL title in '65, and soon whites and blacks wouldn't play together; the '70 team fielded just 16 players. Aliquippa won 12 games over the next seven years, losing seven of eight to Hopewell, before Yannessa, a teammate of Ditka's and disciple of Aschman's, came home to take over in 1972.
"I had never seen a community change so dramatically in a negative sense," Yannessa says of Aliquippa. "It was all racism, white flight. They wouldn't even let the kids play nighttime football. You're getting your ass kicked, and by the third quarter you're playing in front of 18 people? It was ugly."