Book Reviews: ‘Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town’

Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price has created not only a thorough history of high school football in Aliquippa but also a meticulous chronicle of the labor movement and the rise and fall of industrial America.



cover photo courtesy Grove Press

Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town
by S. L. Price
Atlantic Monthly Press; $27

In the wake of the presidential election, readers have been turning to several best-selling books to better understand what is happening in America. 

​Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” and Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” in particular, have offered sensitive and intelligent takes on communities in peril. Add to that list a new book from an unexpected genre: sports writing.

Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price has created in “Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town,” not only a thorough history of high school football in Aliquippa but also a meticulous chronicle of the labor movement and the rise and fall of industrial America.

In Price’s hands, football is a lens through which to view the shift in America from an agrarian to an industrial economy. 

In the shadow of the Jones and Laughlin steel mills, football began its rise to overtake baseball as our national pastime. 

“Football, with its bone-snapping tackles, minimal protections, and masses toiling in syncopated fury ... It channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill, and mine. It demanded — like the production line and labor union — the sublimation of individual want to group need. Muddy, bloody and raw, football felt more like the life now unfolding at ground level in Western Pennsylvania: bodies punished in a fight for the slightest edge, with money, so often, dictating the terms.” (p.18-19)

The journey of the Aliquippa High School football team from scrappy but perpetual losers to national powerhouse – graduating NFL legends Mike Ditka and Darrelle Revis – mirrors the rise of Aliquippa as a worker’s paradise where “for the first time a particular type of man and woman – lower-middle class, lacking college education, and with little more to offer than a foreign accent, muscle and sweat – could stick out a steel-toe boot and gain a foothold on the American Dream.” (p.124)

The collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s, however, had a disastrous effect on Aliquippa. The local economy cratered, the population dwindled and crime increased. Football may still be king, but little else is certain. S.L. Price gives Aliquippa a chance to tell its own story in these pages. And an important story it is. “Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town” illustrates what happens when we allow communities like Aliquippa to become merely outliers to the American Dream.
For an excellent companion piece check out Robert S. Dorsett’s “Lost Steel Plants of the Monongahela River Valley.” 

​Dorsett gathers a stunning collection of his own photographs documenting the demise and decay of the mills — the Edgar Thomson Plant, Carrie Furnace and Jones and Laughlin, among others — from the 1980s through to today.
 



 


photo courtesy hurston/wright foundation
 

Speak Up
Feb. 22 / Yona Harvey is an assistant professor in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and a poet whose collection “Hemming the Water” won the 2014 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She’s perhaps better known these days as a co-writer of “World of Wakanda,” a spinoff of the best-selling Black Panther series from Marvel Comics. Harvey reads from her poetry as part of the Coffee House Reading Series. (Barnes & Noble Cafe, 600 Forbes Ave., Downtown; 412-434-6626, friedj@duq.edu)
 


photo courtesy Tom Atwood
 

Feb. 23 / Maggie Nelson won a National Book Critics Circle Award last year for her memoir “The Argonauts.” Experimental in form and emotionally acute, “The Argonauts” is a meditation on pregnancy, motherhood and gender. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, critic Jennifer Szalai observed, “So much writing about motherhood makes the world seem smaller after the child arrives, more circumscribed, as if in tacit fealty to the larger cultural assumptions about moms and domesticity; Nelson’s book does the opposite.” (Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland; 412-624-6508, pghwriterseries.wordpress.com)
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

2017 Pittsburgher of the Year: Kelly Frey

2017 Pittsburgher of the Year: Kelly Frey

No one would blame the veteran WTAE anchor if she took time off while undergoing intensive breast cancer treatment. Instead, she chose to use humor and grace to educate and inspire others, all while in the public eye.
Green Medicine: The Business of Medical Marijuana

Green Medicine: The Business of Medical Marijuana

For many, medical marijuana is a panacea capable of alleviating a wide range of symptoms. As Pennsylvania begins allowing the drug’s medical use, patients are relieved — and business is booming.
Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking

Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking

More than 20 years into its run, Casbah remains one of Pittsburgh’s most relevant restaurants.
First There Was Hot Yoga. Then There Was Goat Yoga

First There Was Hot Yoga. Then There Was Goat Yoga

Believe it or not, yogis have been practicing with goats in the Unites States for more than a year.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


Watch: Who is Faster on a Zamboni? Crosby or Malkin?

Watch: Who is Faster on a Zamboni? Crosby or Malkin?

Sid and Geno love to compete, especially against each other. This time, the future Hall-of-Famers climbed aboard Zamboni machines for a race across a parking lot.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
The Best New Restaurants in Pittsburgh in 2017

The Best New Restaurants in Pittsburgh in 2017

PM dining critic Hal B. Klein's list of the 10 best new openings this year.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Best of the ‘Burgh Gift Guide for 2017

Here are some of our favorite ‘Burgh-inspired gifts for him, her, kids, foodies and more.

Comments


Enjoy a Relaxing Evening of Wanton Destruction at Break Room

Enjoy a Relaxing Evening of Wanton Destruction at Break Room

The Irwin business offers the chance to smash inanimate objections for a little "therapeutic demolition."

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Steelers Can't Ease Their Patriots Pain Until January

Steelers Can't Ease Their Patriots Pain Until January

Much as they’d like to, the Steelers won’t be able to exorcise the ghosts of AFC Championship Games Past, even with a win on Sunday.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Movie Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Movie Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A review of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," the latest entry in the massive franchise.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
New Weddings Website Aims for Equality

New Weddings Website Aims for Equality

A local wedding photographer has created a business to connect same-sex couples with LGBTQ-friendly vendors.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
It’s Back! ‘Restored by the Fords’ Gets Premiere Date

It’s Back! ‘Restored by the Fords’ Gets Premiere Date

The new season of the home improvement show featuring Pittsburgh siblings Leanne and Steve Ford debuts on HGTV in January.

Comments

Edit Module

Edit Module