Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Playing Through the Whistle

Steel, Football, and an American Town

by S. L. Price

From a Sports Illustrated senior writer, a moving epic of football and industrial America, telling the story of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, its now-shuttered steel mill, and its legendary high school team.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 576
  • Publication Date October 17, 2017
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2727-3
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $19.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 560
  • Publication Date October 04, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2564-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $27.00

About The Book

Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a small town twenty-six miles down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, is famous for two things: the Jones & Laughlin steel mill, an industrial behemoth that helped win World War II; and football, with a high school team that has produced numerous NFL stars, including Mike Ditka and Darrelle Revis. But the mill, once the fourth-largest producer in America, employer of over fifteen thousand people in a town of twenty-six thousand, started withering in the 1980s and closed for good in 2000. What happens to a town when a dream dies? Does it just disappear?

In Playing Through the Whistle, celebrated sportswriter S. L. Price tells the story of this remarkable place, its people, its players, and, through it, a wider story of American history from the turn of the twentieth century. Aliquippa has been many things–a rigidly controlled company town, a booming racial and ethnic melting pot, a battleground for union rights, and, for a brief time, a sort of workers’ paradise. Price expertly traces this history, following the growth and decline of industry and the struggles and triumphs of Eastern European immigrants and blacks from the South willing to trade their grueling labor for a better life for their families.

Alongside, Price recounts the birth and development of high school sports, from a minor pastime to a source of civic pride, to today, when it can sometimes seem like the only way out of a life of poverty, drug abuse, and crime. And yet the tough town of Aliquippa endures, churning out state champions, charismatic coaches, and legendary players. Playing Through the Whistle is sportswriting at its best, a masterpiece of narrative journalism that will make you cry and cheer in equal measure.


“Evocative and enterprising . . . [Playing Through the Whistle] is a big book . . . capturing major cultural shifts (and tensions) in a regional microcosm.” —David M. Shribman, Wall Street Journal

“[A] masterwork . . . Engrossing, and heartbreaking.” —Brian Batko, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“People who see sports as an escape from the real world might be surprised at just how often the two overlap. The American experience constantly darts into the western Pennsylvania town of Aliquippa in S.L. Price’s Playing Through the Whistle . . . Price unfurls social history in tandem with the successes and failures of the Aliquippa High Quips . . . If baseball is the national pastime, perhaps football is the national reality.” —Marc Tracy, New York Times Book Review

“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 . . . Price gives Aliquippa a chance to tell its own story in these pages. And an important story it is.” —Kristofer Collins, Pittsburgh Magazine

“I’m impressed with the book and its wide-ranging look from the eyes of an out-of-towner . . . I commend Price for his in-depth look into the history of the town and a special look at the sports side of it.” —Beaver County Times

“A great new book . . . Like the best sports books, Playing Through the Whistle is more than sports. It’s about history, it’s about geography, and most of all it’s about a place where the American Dream checked out a long time ago, and the only thing left behind is the echo of yesterday’s cheers. A book that should be read by anyone trying to understand what is happening in today’s America.” —Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal

“S.L. Price paints a beautiful, painful portrait of Aliquippa and its football program in Playing Through the Whistle . . . Price’s book is a tale that can swing from triumph to heartbreak in almost the blink of an eye.” —Charlie Deitch, Pittsburgh City Paper

“Probably my favorite sports book of the year, even though sports are only part of the story.” —Budd Bailey, Buffalo News (Best Sports Books for 2016)

“For NFL fans, Aliquippa, Pa., is known as a town that produced more than its share of football greatness. In an attempt to get at why, this book delves into the history of football, the state and draws a larger picture about American history. A great read.” —Toronto Star (Holiday Gift Guide)

Playing Through the Whistle . . . looks at the struggling steel town of Aliquippa, Pa., through the prism of its high school football team. The author understands the Rust Belt particulars of the region better than most political professionals.” —Will Leitch, Wall Street Journal (What to Give: Sports Books)

“S.L. Price chronicles a richly detailed history of Aliquippa football . . . An unvarnished decade-by-decade look at the town, the team and the synergy between them . . . A fitting memorial to a remarkable story of urban struggle and athletic prowess.” —Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“[An] excellent book . . . Price captures the glory days when Aliquippa produced not only steel, but also prominent Americans, ranging from Mike Ditka to Henry Mancini.” —National Book Review

“S. L. Price . . . digs deep to report on Aliquippa’s intertwined history of steel and football . . . Playing Through the Whistle is a history of a town but it’s more than that . . . Price . . . writes perceptively about racial tensions, crack cocaine and the violence that has scarred Aliquippa . . . Honest, nuanced reporting.” —John Drescher, News & Observer

“Price thoroughly explores the football saga . . . but this is no mere sports story . . . An artful mix of history, economics, sociology, and athletics . . . 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 . . . Price’s football story is really that of America’s Rust Belt in poignant miniature.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[An] exhaustive history . . . A more thorough account of any high school athletic program in the country would be tough to find.” —Publishers Weekly

“Price, a Sports Illustrated senior writer, tells the town’s story all very well . . . There are . . . revealing anecdotes about individual players and the coaches . . . Good stuff for Friday Night Lights devotees.” —Mark Levine, Booklist

Playing Through the Whistle is . . . rich history . . . In creative nonfiction journalistic style like that of Pete Hamill or Gay Talese . . . Price dramatically chronicles [Aliquippa’s] rise and fall . . . Playing Through the Whistle is an omnibus modern history of the United States as played out in the football ethos of small town Aliquippa, Pa.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness

“Year after year, some of the best books about the human condition come from sportswriters, and S.L. Price has added another illuminating work to that list. Playing Through the Whistle is about football in the legendary western Pennsylvania steel town of Aliquippa, but so much more. It is an evocative, wistful journey through decades of American struggle and achievement and loss.” —David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi and Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

“Applause to S.L. Price for the mind-blowing research and gorgeous storytelling. Playing Through the Whistle is a sprawling display of Price’s signature prose: sharp, vivid, and particular. You feel the heat of the blast furnace, the turf of the Friday night gridiron. With football as his lens, Price transports you to the glory days of an iconic American steel town, and envelops you in the saga of its ultimate demise.” —Jeanne Marie Laskas, New York Times best-selling author of Concussion

“S.L. Price’s Playing Through the Whistle is a big book on a tough town. It reminded me of The Wire, which is high praise.” —Roy Blount Jr., author of About Three Bricks Shy of a Load and Save Room for Pie

“S.L. Price is hands down the best writer about sports and the meaning of sports in America today, and this is his most ambitious and finest work yet. Playing Through the Whistle is an exhaustively reported and expertly written narrative about the rise and fall of industrial America—and football’s central place in that story.” —Stefan Fatsis, author of A Few Seconds of Panic and Word Freak

Playing Through the Whistle is a gut-wrenching portrait of a high school football team that has to embody the American dream for one small town, in large part because everything else that was supposed to do it has fallen apart. I would say this is some of the best sports writing I read this year, except that it’s some of the best writing I’ve read this year.” —David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene

“Among Scott Price’s many interesting and well-crafted sentences is this: ‘Heavy industry and football share the same DNA.’ If so, the progeny of big steel is, in fact, high school football. Even as mill life disappears, football lives remain. With deeply nuanced reporting, and a style that’s both big-hearted and unsentimental, Playing Through the Whistle isn’t merely the history of an American town, but American history itself.” —Mark Kriegel, author of Namath and Pistol


Finalist for the 2017 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing
Named a Best Book of 2016 by the Boston Globe, Kirkus Reviews, and Buffalo News (Best Sports Books)
An Amazon No. 1 Bestseller (Football)
An Amazon Best Book of the Month (History and Nonfiction)


In truth, none of it—football, the town, life, fatherhood–was ever going to be easy for Jeff Baldwin to figure. Thick, strong and with a mammoth capacity for work, he was the latest in the series of Aliquippans with big-time talent. Soon he’d be drawing Division 1-A scholarship offers from all over the nation. But Baldwin had weaknesses. Maybe if he’d come up in a different decade—like Jimmy Frank or Ditka or Richie Mann—before drug use had become casual, before the black family began to implode, before big steel collapsed and the church and unions lost their clout, they wouldn’t have figured so prominently. Weakness was nothing new. Maybe, like the lost or alcoholic or unskilled souls that had preceded him for generations, he would have found his worst impulses channeled by the mill or stunted by societal norms. Maybe he would’ve earned a college degree, or come home to find a stabilizing spot at J&L. Maybe.

But as it was, Jeff Baldwin came up at a time when the old pillars were crumbling, and he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the ensuing shock waves. Indeed, he was fated like few others to live out the dual nature of Aliquippa just beginning to emerge—its pride and pain, its talent and trouble—and personify the year-by-year narrowing of its options until football and prison could seem, at times, the only two left. For him, even then, the narrowing had begun: Jeff Baldwin, the fifteen-year-old boy hurrying into his clothes in the Quips locker room that night, was already the father of a one-year-old boy named Jamie Mandel Brown.