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"You get through here and the hard times? Everything else is easy," Davis says. "They've survived not eating at night, or went through watching a brother or sister get killed. I personally had to see my son arrested and prosecuted and put in jail. So what could be harder? Playing football? That is nothing."
Sirens? They almost don't hear the sirens anymore. But when, early in the evening of Oct. 7, Quips players and coaches saw the helicopter flying in low, its blades whap-whap-whapping over the Pit and beyond, the usually smooth rhythm of practice began to stutter. A chopper is never good news. Dread spread, and soon running backs coach Timmie Patrick, a Beaver County detective, had learned the latest awful news. Medevac: man stabbed at Curenton's Mini Market, and one of their own.
Art (Rooster) Motton, 47, with multiple wounds to his neck and trunk, was flown to a Pittsburgh hospital and pronounced dead, and 16-year-old Aliquippa High student James D. Motton, a nephew whom Art had raised as a son, was charged with the murder. (His trial is pending.) Word was that the two had argued over damage to Art's car, but the motive almost didn't matter. Up at the football field, shock leaped from face to face.
Art Motton had been one of the hardest hitters in Quips history, a 170-pound cornerback whose ferocity had been a legend for 30 years. The hit Rooster put on Belle Vernon tailback Marlon McIntyre—all 220 pounds of him laid out, unconscious—on the first play of the Aliquippa's 1980 playoff win was almost as devastating as the line Motton delivered walking away. "Call the ambulance," Rooster said. "He'll be here for a while." Motton had had his troubles—a crack addiction, since kicked, an unsteady marriage—but lately seemed to have found his footing. For the next week Zmijanac found himself fighting back tears.
It has been a particularly grueling year for the Quips. Not so much the football: Aliquippa finished 12--1 and lost the WPIAL final largely because it fumbled three times inside South Fayette's 20-yard line. Of its 45 players, a couple have a shot at a D-I scholarship and 35 to 40 will be back next fall. But last May former Aliquippa defensive end Kevin Johnson, father of the senior who had escaped with bullet holes in his pants leg in 2009, took six bullets and died in Beaver, police say, after he forced his way into the home of a former girlfriend. Then, a month before Motton's death, assistant chief Davis and volunteers called the Council of Men and Fathers found it necessary to patrol outside the home game against Beaver Falls, defusing any possible violence in retaliation for the August shooting death in Beaver Falls of Stephen Hardy Jr., 22, a law-abiding former Quips quarterback about to graduate from Robert Morris University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
There's no pattern. Kids who study hard and avoid trouble have been destroyed; kids once immersed in crime have grown into caring citizens. "Half of them make it, and half of them don't—and you never know which half it's going to be," says Zmijanac, who took over the Quips' football program in 1997. "It's joyful, and then it breaks your heart—all in the same day."
Zmijanac estimates that he loses a half dozen players to the street each year, and he has a long record of suspending stars. But the team has an open-door policy: "If he wants to come back, we'll always bring him in," McBride says. "No matter how many times they fail. Our job is not to give up on them."
That's why you'll hear Zmijanac call a kid like Willie Walker, former crack dealer, "wonderful." Because maybe, just maybe, Walker beat the spiderweb. He negotiated the final seven months of school without football, weathered the disappointment of 2005 Signing Day coming and going without one offer. A day later a coach from California (Pa.) University came to Aliquippa with a full scholarship for him. It wasn't until the fall of '06, after he'd moved to the campus 60 miles away, bought books and been brutally sandwiched by a pair of massive twins on his first collegiate snap, that Walker allowed himself to believe: I'm here. I finally made it.
Four years later Walker, a defensive lineman, led the Vulcans to the semifinals of the NCAA Division II tournament and was named to the AP's Little All-America first team. There were bumps: His girlfriend in Aliquippa had a baby his freshman year, and he wanted to be involved, but two of his cousins and an uncle were indicted in the roundup of Ali Dorsett's crew, and Willie's mom—stepping up at last—told him to stay at school, away from the trouble. She helped out with the baby in Aliquippa and brought her on game days to watch Willie play. Sometimes some of his former confederates would come up to cheer him on too. He intends to graduate. He still keeps the Red Baron immaculate.
This, of course, isn't a picture of conventional mores, but Aliquippa rarely allows for black-and-white assertions of right and wrong. The town is small, the lines blurred and ever shifting; it is, indeed, a web in which everyone knows or is related to everyone else. Ty Law grew up in the house once occupied by Sean Gilbert's mother. Willie Walker stayed good friends with Byron Wilson, even though it was his own kin who wanted to kill him. "And are you ready for this?" says Short, the Quips' defensive coordinator, one day in November. "Ali Dorsett is married to my daughter."