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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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Meanwhile, a zoning fluke—the line drawn just 30 yards from the front door—had placed the Dorsetts' home in the Hopewell district. While the boosters at Aliquippa might have finagled a way to keep him, Tony's parents took one look at the stable, peaceful halls of Hopewell High and put him on the bus headed there. Within two years Vikings coach Butch Ross had the most spectacular running back yet seen in Western Pennsylvania.

It wasn't easy for Dorsett, though. He was one of only a handful of blacks among more than 1,500 Hopewell students, living "in two worlds," as he puts it: by night a resident of the Hill, hardscrabble and all black, by day a student in what he and his friends called Whiteyland. But Dorsett had football to insulate him, and he says the two-world split prepared him to deal with just about any social situation. In fact, the only thing Hopewell didn't prepare him for was the notion that his school, state—hell, entire country—could evolve, that white and black kids would someday date without inciting comment, that a black man could see his name raised on the most revered structure in town.

Of course, change didn't come overnight. At Aliquippa High, Yannessa walked into the gym his first day as coach, saw his prospective team self-segregated by race and demanded that they mix—or else. It didn't help that even the booster club had separated into black and white factions. But within a year the Quips began to win. A black steelworker named Charlie Lay served as a goodwill conduit to the white community, setting up mixed meetings of parents, boosters and players in white and black homes, buying drinks in white bars and black, and the battle lines began to soften. Yannessa, along with Zmijanac, his defensive coordinator, had been cocky enough to think he could calm the waters, bring back the old days, and he felt even cockier now. Then, in the fall of 1977, the town cracked again.

A fight between a black and a white student outside the school cafeteria ended with the white student stabbed, and all the tamped-down tensions erupted. Aliquippa High closed for three days. After that police roamed the halls, and every day brought another fight with a knife or chain. Teachers locked their doors and hid. For the first time Yannessa felt the football program, and the town, were surely lost.

He was wrong. Although town and school were savagely split, the team's core was not. Short, McBride and five other players, a mix of juniors and seniors, black and white, met the weekend before the '78 season opener and heard Short demand, "This has got to stop somewhere." The next day, after the team entered the gym and, for the first time in years, divided itself into white and black factions, the seven players walked together to the center of the floor. "You're either with us," they announced, "or you're out."

"No one left that gym," McBride says. "Everybody came together as one." Not long after, some felt a shift in Aliquippa's air. Black and white players were seen double-dating, sometimes interracially. The crowds at games began to mix. In the off-season Yannessa insisted that the annual banquets for the black and white booster clubs be combined, and it happened.

"Football brought the families, the community, everything back together," McBride says, walking behind the Pit's grandstand. "You'd go down to the mill where everybody's mother or father was working and hear, 'You going to the game this week?' If you wanted to rob a bank in Aliquippa? Friday night at eight o'clock was the best time."

Tony Dorsett is walking downtown. A car passes, slows: Why would anyone be walking ... wait. Was that Hawk? It has been years since he's been down to Franklin Avenue. Most storefronts are empty now, mocking like a toothless grin the spiffy red banners on the light posts that plead, TAKE PRIDE IN ALIQUIPPA. Two men, their clothing loose and fraying, appear and head Dorsett's way. They stop, shake hands, chat. "Man," Dorsett says. "Everything's shut down."

"Only one thing that ain't shut down, Tony," one replies. "The bullets."

Aliquippa is, in one sense, like a big city: People warn you away from certain spots. There's a safe stretch along Brodhead Road, but the occasional burglary keeps residents edgy. You don't want to be on Franklin Avenue at night, and places that used to be crime-free, like Main Street just outside the high school, have grown grimmer. "You can be anywhere," says Revis. "Every time somebody gets killed, I'm getting a call: 'Stephen died.' 'This guy died.' I have been home and talked to somebody, and two weeks later I'm getting a call like, 'He's dead.' It's not safe. You can die just like that."

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