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December 13, 2013

‘Tough town’ of Aliquippa has been producing top talent for years

MORGANTOWN — Back in the mid-1990s, West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen reached up in Aliquippa, Pa., to grab off a wide receiver named Charles Fisher with the idea of making him into a cornerback, a pretty good idea at that as Fisher wound up his career as a second-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals.

As if history had to repeat itself this year, coach Dana Holgorsen went back to Aliquippa, back into the Pittsburgh area that over the years has been so good to the Mountaineers, and grabbed off a running back/cornerback named Dravon Henry and offered him a scholarship to play corner at WVU.

Dravon Henry is Charles Fisher’s cousin, and he understands why that area of Pennsylvania and Aliquippa in particular has been so rich an area for football development.

Aliquippa was a steel town, like so many around Pittsburgh were. And like so many towns that lost their steel mill, it saw its population drop from 27,000 in 1940 to 9,000 now.

It is famous for its high school football, spitting out NFL football players the way John Belushi spit out a mouthful of mashed potatoes in the movie “Animal House.”

Two of them, Tony Dorsett and Mike Ditka, are in the Hall of Fame.

There’s another Hall of Famer out of Aliquippa. His name is Henry Mancini, and he’s about as far removed from football as you can get, being the famous composer who brought us “Moon River” and “The Theme for The Pink Panther.”

Mostly, though, you know of the football stars like Fisher and Darrelle Revis and Ty Law who have made it big in the NFL and an absolutely inordinate number of players have made it to college and into the NFL for a city of its size.

Why? What sets Aliquippa apart from even other steel towns?

“It’s the mentality of the people,” Charles Fisher answers. “Obviously, Aliquippa is a tough town. Just to get by every day living in that town is a tough task. It’s not the easiest place to live.

“With that being said, if you can persevere there, you can persevere anywhere.”

A lot of towns are tough but don’t claim Tony Dorsetts or Mike Ditkas as their own. What sets this tough town apart?

“It’s the mentality, the tradition … you look at Alabama and the tradition of football. Aliquippa is the same way. The tradition of football goes all the way back to my grandfather who played in the NFL. And Mike Ditka. It’s been there for years,” Fisher said, about to explain further.

“Everyone looks up to the tradition, respects it. They want to emulate it or put their own stamp on it. That’s just something everyone is taught, and it’s still going on to this day.

“I always wanted to be like the older guys who played. We didn’t want to be an NFL star; we wanted to be an Aliquippa Quip. Guys couldn’t wait to see Friday games, too, because that was guys they see walking around the neighborhood. On Friday night you would see them transform into something different.”

That something different was football heroes.

“People piggy back off it. They’d see someone succeed and realize it was attainable and you’d go after it. It’s a toughness, a mentality, a respect of the game.”

It is even more than that, Fisher claims.

“At Aliquippa they teach you the fundamentals of the game right from the beginning. They understand how to be coached, how to take the coaching and use it to help them develop their game,” he said. “Just being a great athlete is fine, but it sets you back if you are trying to be a great defensive back without knowing how to go about it.

“That goes right to the NFL. A lot of guys are great athletes there but aren’t great cornerbacks.”

And so it is you learn the way to play the game, and that carries over as you move up the ladder.

“It makes it a lot easier. It was that way with me,” Fisher said. “When I was at Aliquippa, I was known more as a receiver, but I also played defensive back and made All-State in both categories. I was coached as well as anyone in the country. I saw Ty Law go to Michigan and play immediately. We had coaches at Aliquippa who played in the NFL, who played high level in college, and they are the type of coaches that you ask a lot of questions of.

“That helped me in my transition in college, where I went from receiver to DB so fast because I just knew a lot more than a lot of guys would have known because I played for guys who played it, taught it and coached it.”

And, believe it or not, it helped Fisher get through the lowest moment in his life, when he learned his pro football career was over almost before it began because of injury.

“Part of that mentality I got from Aliquippa to persevere through things was still in me,” he said. “I studied the game of football when I was at West Virginia. I did my thing as a student at the school and was a student of the game, and that allowed me to continue down the path of football.

“I think some people kind of think if you become a football player, that’s all you can be in life, but I never wanted to be that kind of person. I tried to be well-rounded enough that if something ever happened I could adjust.

“Unfortunately for me, I had to adjust fast.”

He did it, but not alone.

“Some of it has to do with your family and who you have around you. I had a lot of love in my family. It wasn’t a situation where they wanted me to keep playing. They said we’re proud of you, but maybe it’s time you need to step away.

“I played the game more for my family than even for me and when I realized they were OK with it, I could move on.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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