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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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It's not rare to hear someone declare Aliquippa dead too. The streets give off a postapocalyptic feel, at once simmering and still. You can't be sure that what you see is a mercilessly dismantled past or a nightmare vision of the future—a vivid preview of what can happen when a nation ships its manufacturing work, the kind that once offered blue-collar security, overseas.

The J&L mill, battered by cheap, inventive Japanese products and taken over by the Ohio-based LTV Corporation, began shutting down nearly 30 years ago, and closed for good in 2000. Pittsburgh has made a successful transition to the new economy, but "Aliquippa's in a weird place," says Pitt labor economist Chris Briem. "It's not the center of the region, it's not the city, it's not quite rural. What is the competitiveness of towns that used to have a reason for being—and don't anymore?"

Yet others insist that a molten stream of the old immigrant sensibility, alloyed with the hard-won unity forged in the '70s, still courses through the town. Aliquippans say hard times weeded out the weak, and only the strong remain. They see a drive among the youngest, especially the athletes who've lived entire lives amid the ruins, that keeps pushing them to win against ridiculous odds.

"My sister was murdered," says 35-year-old Dwan Walker, a former receiver for Aliquippa who intends to run for mayor this spring. Standing behind the Aliquippa stands during a September game, Walker describes how his sister, Deirdre, 33, was killed in the fall of 2009 by James Moon, a 24-year-old former Quips running back who, the Aliquippa police say, was jealous of Deirdre's relationship with another man. "She was shot and killed in front of my nephew, shot three times," Walker says. Moon then turned the gun on himself. Afterward, Walker says, "I wanted to leave. I'm mad at this place every day. But I have never felt so much love in my life as I felt from [Aliquippans] when my sister was murdered. My Facebook page exploded; I had to shut it down, there were so many messages.

"All in all, I wouldn't trade Aliquippa for nothing in the world. We're going to keep fighting. You'll read the paper tomorrow: ALIQUIPPA WON. That's all we need. Because it's heart, man. It's pride. It's a mystery, how you keep wanting to come back."

"Aliquippa will never die," says Aileen Gilbert, Sean Gilbert's mom and Revis's grandmother. "On the surface it looks like a ghost town. It looks desolate. But I don't see desolation."

What she does see is spirit, handed down from parent to son, that can be best summed up in four words: no track, no problem. Because the story that best illustrates the town's mix of triumph and tragedy is only tangentially related to football. It involves McBride, who doubles as the Quips' track coach; four football players who ran sprints; and a long jumper named Byron Wilson.

With no running track, the Quips practice in the school parking lot, spikes on asphalt. Before 2005 an Aliquippa team had never won a state title. Yet at that spring's state championships, against schools fielding up to 20 boys, Aliquippa won its first team title with just those five.

The sprinters finished one-five-eight in the 100 meters, took second in the 200 and won the 4 × 100 relay. But to claim the title the team would need points from Wilson, who rarely worked hard at practice and was seeded 21st of 24 competitors. After he fouled on his first two jumps, there wasn't much hope. "It wasn't like Byron had technique," says Michael Washington, one of the football player--sprinters. On his third jump, however, Wilson stuck it: 22'3¼", good for first place and 43 team points. Aliquippa won the championship by two points.

"When he called, you could hear it in his voice; it was really gratifying," says Andre Davis, Wilson's stepfather, who had raised him from age three. "To me and his mother, it meant, Thank God. Now he knows that he has a talent. He realizes if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish something." His parents hung the medals on their bedroom mirror so they could see them every day when they woke. They hang there still.

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