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The fear came for Willie Walker that November. He was not expecting it. Evening had dropped early and hard, as it does in Western Pennsylvania in the fall, but these were streets he had known forever. Hours had passed since the 2004 regional championship game had ended down in Pittsburgh; the adrenaline and bravado on the ride home had long since burned off, replaced by grief, then mere regret. They had lost. The Aliquippa High football team, for all its history of success, had been beaten. Now, in the backseat, Walker felt a numbness settling in. Losing happens. You move on. You start thinking about what's next.
Walker was a senior. Just seven months until graduation, and he'd be able to say it: He had survived. The town hadn't killed, hadn't crippled, hadn't defeated him, though God knows it had tried. His life had been a cliché of criminal pathology: father long dead, mother struggling with crack addiction, days of hunger, corners promising casual violence. Aliquippa's streets are, as one of Walker's coaches put it, "a spiderweb" capable of ensnaring the most innocent, and though Walker never lost sight of his prize—college somewhere, anywhere—he was hardly innocent. No, for a time he had leaped into the web, daring it to grab hold.
The year before, Willie (Silent But Violent) Walker had been a star lineman for Aliquippa's 2003 state championship team, a 6'1", 295-pound, 4.8-in-the-40 "monster," says Darrelle Revis, then Walker's teammate and now a Jets cornerback. But during the season, after Walker's mother was jailed on parole violation, the bottom had fallen out: Walker had gone to the coaching staff in tears, ready to quit. He was alone, 17, with a 13-year-old sister to care for and no money for food or rent. Coaches and boosters mobilized, had a refrigerator stocked with groceries delivered to Walker's apartment in the Valley Terrace housing project, got him odd jobs, handouts. It wasn't enough. His cousins were in the business. He began dealing cocaine and crack to make ends meet.
As the winter months unrolled, Walker found himself growing colder. He had no time to feel pity. He lived the predatory days of black-on-black crime, supplied the hollow-eyed with endless rock, saw one friend rob another at gunpoint. He avoided arrest when a SWAT team raided the operation's gun- and drug-laden home base just minutes after he'd left. He watched as the mom of one of his associates came with cash in hand, and her son sold her a fix. Walker allowed himself a shiver, paused long enough to think, Je-sus. Then he got back to business. "She came to him, he gave it to her," Walker says. "It was just normal."
His coaches and most teammates didn't know what he was doing. His sister, Kerrie, didn't know. Walker kept playing, going to practice when he could, consuming the free food laid out afterward: green tea, hoagies, kielbasa, barbecue. Since he had begun playing his freshman year, football had provided an identity, given his chaotic life its only frame. The field was the one place in Aliquippa where the spiderweb's strands couldn't get much purchase.
The season ended, spring came, Walker's mother was released. Nobody in the business hassled him when he decided to stop dealing; his cousins were notorious.
The next fall, the 2004 season, Walker studied, cut grass for coaches and teachers, prepped for the SATs. In the fall he had 82 tackles and four sacks at defensive tackle, blocked three kicks. He was just a player and student again, tooling around in a 1985 Dodge Diplomat he'd bought for $750. He had scraped the rust off, repainted the car blood red and dubbed it the Red Baron. People still grin recalling Willie and that car, seemingly made for each other—both headed for the junkyard once, both proud and shining now. But Walker wasn't driving it that night in November, heading home from the game, when his heart started pounding as if to break through his chest.
For weeks he'd kept the thought at bay, but now it wouldn't be denied: My last game. Football saved me, but now it's over. The fear rushed through him, worse than on the worst days with his mom, worse than when a passing cop car slowed, worse than when he felt the weight of the Taurus .45 jammed in his pants. He had never been so scared. No practice, no workouts, nothing. College? He still had no offers. The van he was riding in took a left on Superior Avenue, engine gunning as the street rose under the wheels. He could see the lights of Valley Terrace looming when, without warning, he began to cry. Tears, silent sobs: He couldn't stop.
"Because going up that hill?" Walker says. "It was like driving into the mouth of a monster."
It was your quintessential melting pot," says Don Yannessa, an Aliquippa High graduate and the coach of its football team from 1972 through '88. "Italians lived in [the] Plan 11 [neighborhood], Serbians in Logstown or Plan 7, Greeks downtown. We had a large Jewish community. And they all got along. There were 30,000 people and paychecks every two weeks, and the stores were thriving. What a great town it was."