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Playing Through the Whistle
Cover of Playing Through the Whistle
Playing Through the Whistle
Steel, Football, and an American Town
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In the early twentieth century, down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company built one of the largest mills in the world and a town to go with it. Aliquippa was a beacon and a melting pot, pulling in thousands of families from Europe and the Jim Crow south. The J&L mill, though dirty and dangerous, offered a chance at a better life. It produced the steel that built American cities and won World War II and even became something of a workers' paradise. But then, in the 1980's, the steel industry cratered. The mill closed. Crime rose and crack hit big.
But another industry grew in Aliquippa. The town didn't just make steel; it made elite football players, from Mike Ditka to Ty Law to Darrelle Revis. Pro football was born in Western Pennsylvania, and few places churned out talent like Aliquippa. Despite its troubles—maybe even because of them—Aliquippa became legendary for producing football greatness. A masterpiece of narrative journalism, Playing Through the Whistle tells the remarkable story of Aliquippa and through it, the larger history of American industry, sports, and life. Like football, it will make you marvel, wince, cry, and cheer.

In the early twentieth century, down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company built one of the largest mills in the world and a town to go with it. Aliquippa was a beacon and a melting pot, pulling in thousands of families from Europe and the Jim Crow south. The J&L mill, though dirty and dangerous, offered a chance at a better life. It produced the steel that built American cities and won World War II and even became something of a workers' paradise. But then, in the 1980's, the steel industry cratered. The mill closed. Crime rose and crack hit big.
But another industry grew in Aliquippa. The town didn't just make steel; it made elite football players, from Mike Ditka to Ty Law to Darrelle Revis. Pro football was born in Western Pennsylvania, and few places churned out talent like Aliquippa. Despite its troubles—maybe even because of them—Aliquippa became legendary for producing football greatness. A masterpiece of narrative journalism, Playing Through the Whistle tells the remarkable story of Aliquippa and through it, the larger history of American industry, sports, and life. Like football, it will make you marvel, wince, cry, and cheer.

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About the Author-
  • S. L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1994, is the author of three previous books: Heart of the Game; Pitching Around Fidel, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Far Afield, which Esquire named one of the top five reads of 2007. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 8, 2016
    Aliquippa High School, in far-western Pennsylvania, has consistently groomed football players for the NFL—including Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, three-time Super Bowl Champion Ty Law, and All-Pro New York Jet Darrelle Revis—and it claimed 16 Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League titles between 1952 and 2015. But, as longtime Sports Illustrated senior writer Price notes in this exhaustive history of Aliquippa’s storied football program, basketball and baseball also enjoyed initial success at the school. Like many cities in the region during the 20th century, Aliquippa was a melting pot populated by factory families; in this case, the Jones & Laughlin Steel Company employed a good chunk of the town before falling on hard times and shutting down in 2000. But life in Aliquippa was always influenced by the city’s blue-collar history and its high school’s football program. Price (Pitching Around Fidel) takes his time detailing the rise of organized local labor unions and the role J&L played in shaping Aliquippa, and football remains on the sidelines for long stretches. When he does focus on the game, the author provides memorable characterizations of cocky English-teacher-turned-football-coach Mike Zmijanac in the 1970s and star defensive lineman Jeff Baldwin in the ’80s. Despite straying from the field, though, a more thorough account of any high school athletic program in the country would be tough to find. Agent: Andrew Blauner, Blauner Books Literary.

  • Kirkus

    A senior Sports Illustrated writer tells a multigenerational story about Aliquippa, a Pennsylvania steel town, and its legendary high school football team.Heavy industry and football share the same DNA, writes Price (Heart of the Game: Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America, 2009, etc.). Both feature a hierarchical management structure; both involve collective striving, with various skills merging to produce the desired result; both "depend on--even celebrate--the implicit trade of health for money" or celebrity. Since the early 1900s, when the J&L Steel Company designed and built the town, until today, as surely as the blast furnaces once reliably churned out pig iron, the Quips have won a succession of regional and state championships, producing an astonishing number of football stars, most notably Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Ty Law, and Darrelle Revis. Price thoroughly explores the football saga, focusing on four particularly successful coaches and their teams, but this is no mere sports story. The author produces an artful mix of history, economics, sociology, and athletics. He makes room for sketches of distinguished, nonsports native sons (composer Henry Mancini), a reform-minded governor's wife, a J&L official who bossed the town, and Aliquippa's first black mayor. As he travels through the decades, he packs the narrative with telling episodes: the presidential visits of John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, a landmark Supreme Court labor case slapping down J&L, the high school walkouts of the 1960s, protesting the lack of black cheerleaders. Price's especially touching engravings of "promise squandered," those chewed up and spit out by Aliquippa's tough environment, contrast powerfully with the tales of football triumph. From the rigidly stratified life in the 1920s and '30s during J&L's "despotic prime," to the brief, postwar golden age, "a moment of civic equipoise," to today's "company town without a company," where the combination of unemployment, drugs, and crime crushes hope, Price's football story is really that of America's Rust Belt in poignant miniature. COPYRIGHT(1) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2016
    Price, a senior writer at "Sports Illustrated" since 1994 and the author of "Pitching Around Fidel", a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, visits Aliquippa, PA, whose high-flying high school football team has produced NFL stars such as Mike Ditka and Darrelle Revis and whose mighty Jones & Laughlin steel mill was once fourth largest in the nation. But the mill closed in 2000, and Price portrays a once vibrant melting-pot community now fighting off poverty and crime.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Playing Through the Whistle
Playing Through the Whistle
Steel, Football, and an American Town
S.L. Price
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