Monday, December 22, 2014

Q&A with Greg Nichols

Greg Nichols is the author of the new book Striking Gridiron: A Town's Pride and a Team's Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History. It looks at the success of a Western Pennsylvania high school football team in 1959, during a crucial steel strike. He lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you learn about the record-breaking Braddock Tigers of 1959, and how did you meet their coach, Chuck Klausing?

A: In early 2009, I landed in Braddock in search of a miracle. I had been reading early accounts of the town's new mayor, an ambitious guy who was helping to radically reverse the popular perception of the town as a dangerous and wilted former steel manufacturing hub.

I was conducting interviews with a group of newer residents, who were mostly young, hip, and artistic, trying to get to the heart of what their impact had been, if any, on the fortunes of the average resident. It was fascinating stuff, and it kept me coming back to Braddock again and again.

During one early trip, a resident listened to my introductory spiel, nodded, and said, "You want a story? I've got a story for you. Ever hear of the Braddock High Tigers?" Turns out this man, Joel Rice, had been doing some early research, compiling newspaper clippings and old archival material relating to the Tigers.

He showed up the day after we spoke with a stack of papers and commanded I start reading. It turned out that Klausing was alive and well, enjoying his retirement about an hour away in the town of Indiana, PA.

I reached out to him, and everything began falling into place. It wasn't the story I set out to tell, but it's the story that found me and one I'm so honored to have had the opportunity to work on.

Q: What did the high school football team mean for the town in 1959, especially during a very difficult steel strike?

A: You really can't overstate the importance of the Tigers to Braddock in the late 1950s. In the PA borough system, these little mill towns operate as wholly independent municipalities. They have their own police and fire services, their own library systems (courtesy of the Carnegie foundation), and their own school boards.

In the 1950s, many of these towns had a mill where the vast majority of the working age men toiled; steel production was far and away the dominant industry. As a result of these dynamics, people identify extremely closely with their town, with their mill.

When the strike came along in '59, workers expected it would be settled quickly. But it wasn't; labor and management dug their heels in and the strike ended up lasting 116 days.

During that time, the economies of the towns up and down the Monongahela Valley virtually collapsed. Workers drew no salaries, had nothing to do all day, and largely survived on government aid.

The only bright spot was football. The strike coincided (virtually to the day) with the high school football season. Incredibly, the Braddock High Tigers were on the brink of a national record, though they would need to be perfect to pull it off.

For workers, that quest became a proxy to the larger fight, a symbol of the region's might and of Braddock's resilience in particular.

Q: How would you describe race relations in Western Pennsylvania at that time?

A: Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s is often held up by those who lived there/then as a kind of idyllic slice of American harmony. But the fact is it was an incredibly racist place.

African Americans arrived in the area from the south in large numbers during the Great Migration. In need of work, many took low-paying jobs in the mills.

White workers believed the new black labor force was undercutting wages. Worse, managers often hired black workers as scabs. This was during the most contentious period of the long movement to organize the steel industry, and the enduring image for many white workers was a steady stream of African American men crossing their picket lines.

The country itself was at a racial crossroads in the mid-1950s, of course, and was far from a beacon of progress. Black students couldn't use the library or the local gym in Braddock, had to deal with blatantly racist teachers and administrators, and black athletes were typically run off of any teams they tried to join.

That's what was so remarkable about Klausing's Tigers. The team was about even split racially between black and white players. Klausing was a legitimately progressive guy in an era, in a region, and in a sport where that kind of thing was exceedingly rare. 

Q: How did you research all the details that you include in this book, and what surprised you most?

A: I wasn't alive when the events of the book took place, and I'm from Southern California, not Western Pennsylvania. So yeah, I had my work cut out for me.

My approach was to talk to everyone and anyone who was around when the Tigers took the field. Klausing was my primary source, but I interviewed dozens of players and countless fans to reconstruct this amazing story.

I also had to learn a lot about football, a sport I played but have complex feelings about. There were lots of surprises along the way, but the big one was that the sport -- thanks particularly to Klausing and his coaching staff -- really did serve as this overwhelmingly positive force in the lives of these kids.

There's a lot of scandal around football right now, and much of it is well-deserved. But in Braddock in the 1950s, the team served as a grounding influence for a group of boys dealing with abusive home lives, a rapidly changing world, and, in the case of the black players, rampant racism. Klausing was a real stand-in father figure, and that's exactly how his players speak of him to this day.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm hard at work on a new book! I'm following a team of incredible engineers who are helping paraplegics walk and are extending the normal capabilities of able-bodied individuals.

The book is all about the first commercial bionic exoskeletons, but it's really about a fundamental challenge that seems like it should be so simple but has proven extraordinarily sticky: How in the world do we make a machine walk like a human?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I'm extraordinarily grateful for efforts like this, which serve to build communities of readers and writers. Thanks so much for the hard work, and thanks for giving me a microphone and a few minutes to share. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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