As Super Bowl Sunday approaches, an inordinate amount of energy has been spent since last weekend’s conference championship games discussing legacies.
In the case of New England’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the question is whether their lofty accomplishments have been tainted by the “deflate-gate” and “spy-gate” scandals.
The discussion around Seattle is what it will mean for the franchise, and specifically Head Coach Pete Carroll, quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman, to be the first franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did so ten years ago.
There’s another significant legacy at stake, one that doesn’t attract the attention of the aforementioned but will be given more texture and historical weight with the outcome of this game. That is the legacy of New England’s Darrelle Revis, whose standing among the historical titans of pro football would be further cemented with his first Super Bowl victory.
Revis, who has long been considered, although Richard Sherman might beg to differ, the NFL’s best cornerback of the last decade, has taken a backseat in the buildup to this game. But on Sunday, he’ll be one of the best and most important players on the field, a key cog in Belichick’s defensive machinery that hopes to throttle Seattle’s offensive attack.
To understand Revis is to have some sort of understanding of where he’s from. The well-worn adage says, “It ain’t where you’re from. It’s where you’re at.” But in Revis’ case, the opposite is true. He’s where he’s at especially because of where he’s from.
The town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania was much more than a company town on Pittsburgh’s periphery simply inhabited by employees of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mills, back when America’s steel mill industry was at its apex, and J&L proved to be the Carnegie Steel Company’s greatest competitor.
It was once postulated that “the soundest material measure of our potency as a nation is our capacity to produce steel ingots.” But the production of steel also came with a sinister ancillary: the very real possibility of a steep loss of human life during the average workshift.
The area was once described as “Hell with the lid taken off” by the Atlantic’s James Parton. Aliquippa, named after the fabled Seneca Indian queen, was supposed to be some utopian model of a home environment to the blue collar workers, the nerve center that built and drove American industry. But its underbelly could be crude, depressing and sinister.
The land was separated into twelve separate plans where Germans, Irish, English, Serbs, Croatians, Italians, Slovaks, African-Americans and others were designated specific areas of residency. On the other side of town lay an assortment of vices that flowered in the blue-light district.
J&L 's Aliquippa Works steel mills covered an inexorable seven-plus miles, where enormous mountains of raw materials like limestone and coal lay side by side, wedged between the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroads and the expansive Ohio River.
(J&L Steel Blast Furnaces, Photo Credit: bchistory.org)
“Porches had to be swept, usually twice a day, to clear them from the 'black sugar,' a granular soot that blew in from blast furnaces," wrote Mark Kriegel in his book Pistol, The Life of Pete Maravich. "To stroll down Iron Street was to feel the black sugar crunch under your feet. To look toward the heavens was to see a flaming orange sky. The Bessemer furnaces, pear-shaped vessels resembling squat cannons, would tilt and blow a colossal bonfire. People would come from all over to bear witness to this illumination. In neighboring villages, native Aliquippans would here, 'Hey look, your town's on fire.' The constant glow made it difficult to tell night from day."
In the midst of this industrial behemoth, the course of a young boy’s life was relatively pre-determined. The lit furnaces outlined an inevitable destination for most fathers and sons of Aliquippa, and their sons and their sons after them.
Most knew that after high school, they would spend the rest of their days trudging “through the tunnel,” and into the abyss of the back-breaking, unforgiving work of the steel mills.
Revis was a product of the Aliquippa that was far removed from its industrial heyday. His was a town that limped horribly through the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980’s. Athletes replaced steel as the area’s greatest domestic import. And his greatest source of inspiration came from his family.
Indeed, Aliquippa has produced hoops legend “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who grew up there before moving as a teenager to North Carolina. The area was also home to NFL greats Mike Ditka and Tony Dorsett.
But Revis didn’t have to look far for his athletic role models. His uncle, Sean Gilbert, prior to playing in the NFL for 11 years with the Rams, Redskins, Panthers and Raiders, was the USA Today Prep Defensive Player of the Year and a Parade All-American at Aliquippa High. Gilbert went on to become an All-American at the University of Pittsburgh before being selected with the third-overall pick in the 1992 NFL draft.
One of Aliquippa High’s younger players who gravitated toward Gilbert was Ty Law, who would go on to a storied college career at the University of Michigan and a 15-year stint in the NFL, where he won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and was generally recognized as one of the best defensive backs of his generation.
“I grew up with his uncle, but he was a few years older than me,” Law told the Providence Journal earlier this summer, as Revis signed a free agent contract with New England after spending six years with the New York Jets and another with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “We all hung around because it was such a small, tight-knit community. We hung out, played basketball. I knew Darrelle when he was Pop Warner.”
When Law was in the NFL, his former coaches and teammates from Aliquippa would tell him that there was another player now at the school who reminded them of him. “Remember Little Darelle? He’s just like you,” they’d say.
When Law stopped by Aliquippa to see Revis play, he was indeed captivated by the youngster’s burgeoning talent.
“I know it’s hard to evaluate certain talents, but being that we had so many athletes and I’ve seen so many come and go, you knew right then and there when they made the comparisons to me with him,” Law told the Providence Journal. “So when I got a chance to see him play, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ There’s so much competition where we come from, and you see so much talent. So when you stand out where I’m from, it’s something special, because everybody’s good.”
Revis’ athletic aptitude was encapsulated by in a three-day window in 2003. On December 3rd, suffering from the flu, he played running back, wide receiver, quarterback, defensive back and returned kicks against Northern Lehigh in the Pennsylvania Class AA championship game. His 64-yard touchdown run in the game’s waning moments sealed Aliquippa’s 32-27 victory.
He scored all five touchdowns for his team that day, including an 89-yard kickoff return. Two days later, in the school’s first basketball game of the season, with only one practice under his belt due to the run through the state football playoffs, Revis scored 35 points, including nine in overtime, leading Aliquippa to an 86-82 victory over Beaver Falls High School, which boasted, along with having one of the area’s top hoops teams, Joe Namath as its own famous alum.
Most stories about Aliquippa harp on the negative aspects, the crime, drugs and murders that dominated the Rust Belt’s narrative once the steel industry collapsed. Yes, it’s a tough place to grow up. At least six of Revis’ high school teammates are now dead.
But there’s also a sense of strength and family that emanates from that type of environment as well. While his mom worked numerous jobs, including stints as a hair stylist and a corrections officer, his uncles, aunts, siblings and other family members kept him from veering off path.
“It’s a tough town,” Revis told the New York Post in 2011. “There’s a lot of negativity there. And the one thing I did growing up was lean on the people doing positive things….Ty Law, my uncle Sean Gilbert, Mike Ditka’s from there. Just seeing the billboards of him from our hometown, and wanting to make it out of there.”
The house that he grew up in, that generations of his family members grew up in, the one that overlooked the Aliquippa High School football field that nourished so many of his young dreams is now abandoned and boarded up. The neighborhood’s exterior might be crumbling and the crime and homicide statistics might be daunting, but in the midst of that pain and struggle, there remains a championship spirit.
Revis took it with him to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a First Team Freshman All-American. It’s been there with him since his days as a rookie starter with the New York Jets, where his coverage area became known as Revis Island, a place where wide receivers went to languish.
It will be there with him during Sunday’s Super Bowl. It’s not flashy. It’s not loud. Excellence, rather than blabber or distraction, is the only thing that beckons its attention. It’s about competitiveness, dominating one’s opponent, winning the one-on-one battles within the bigger chess match of the game.
“When I was growing up, I looked at the people who made it to the N.F.L.,” Revis told the New York Times in 2008. “But I wanted to be better than them. I wanted to surpass them. Now, it’s my time.”
On football’s biggest stage, the Legion of Boom, the nickname for Seattle’s elite and punishing secondary, has been garnering all of the pre-game buzz. But when Seattle has the football, keep an eye on Revis Island.
And don’t let the fancy name fool you. Revis Island really isn’t an island at all.
It’s just a small piece of a bygone era, symbolic of American pride and industrial might, of blue-collar values, of the importance of hard work and family. It’s about heart and soul, sacrifice and pain. It’s about knowing that getting to the mountaintop, is very much a byproduct of the people and the places that helped you get there.