When Darrelle Revis was growing up in Aliquippa, an economically deteriorating mill town in western Pennsylvania, he would sit on the front steps of his home on Seventh Avenue — a red brick structure since boarded and abandoned — near the top of a hill that overlooks the Pit.
On Friday nights, with the fall air thick with smoke from the concession grill and the lights glowing beneath a weepy sky, he would dream of playing for the Fighting Quips the way his uncle, Sean Gilbert, did.
Carl A. Aschman Stadium, one of the most historic settings for high school football, is carved into a deep crater that conceals its whereabouts until you stumble upon the Pit near the edge of downtown.
"As soon as you step on the field, the lights cut on and you can kind of feel that the Pit is hallowed ground," the Bucs cornerback said. "You can feel it's where Mike Ditka played, Tony Dorsett, Sean Gilbert, Ty Law. You can feel the energy coming from that field. So it made our energy a little bit higher."
Revis was equally curious about what happened in the shadows of those streets, past the vacant storefronts on Franklin Street, where a wrong turn could alter the direction of your life.
"It has its good and its bad," Revis said of his hometown, located 20 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. "I was one of those kids who was fortunate to stay with the good, and I think that was (because of) football. I think with me and my friends, we kind of found a way in sports to take up a lot of our time.
"We were always involved in sports. And if not, there isn't anything else to do but to sell drugs or get into something bad or crazy."
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Aliquippa has been beaten by the incoming tide of industrial collapse, racial strife, unemployment and an evaporating population that has shrunk over the past 50 years to just less than 10,000, roughly a third of what it was when the J&L Steel Company, founded in 1905, thrived along the Ohio River through the early 1980s.
But in that puddle of despair, an inordinate supply of football talent has been harvested; from Hall of Famers such as Ditka and Dorsett to All-Pros such as Law and Revis.
The streets have taken many of the rest. Six members of Revis' Aliquippa High state championship team of 2003 are dead — none by natural causes.
Revis admits there was a time when he would tag along with a relative who was pulled to gangs, guns and violence.
"He would always tell me, 'No, you don't want to go where I'm going,' " Revis said. "But one day, I was like, 'I'm going with you,' and ended up seeing some crazy stuff. Just dabbling in and out of that, being curious to see what stuff is and actually growing and seeing that's not where I want to go."
Revis was surrounded by a strong family that kept him pointed in the right direction. His mother, Diana Gilbert, worked various jobs, including corrections officer. So he was often watched by his grandmother, Aileen, or his aunt, Tamu.
The sports influence came from his uncles. Mark played basketball at Duquesne. Sean, who is 15 years older than Revis, played for the Rams, Redskins, Panthers and Raiders during a 10-year NFL career.
"He's not giving himself enough credit," Gilbert said. "He had his own dreams and aspirations. He was a very motivated, very driven, very competitive guy. It was his drive and desire to compete; not being afraid to fail."
Revis' prep career was the stuff of legends. In the Class AA state championship against Northern Lehigh, he scored all five of Aliquippa's touchdowns: an 89-yard kickoff return, 69-yard blocked field goal return and three rushing.
A few days later, he scored 35 points in an overtime basketball win over rival Beaver Falls.
Revis was named the western Pennsylvania football player of the year, and the scholarship offers poured in. But Pittsburgh was the only place Revis really considered so his family could watch him play. He had his ticket out of Aliquippa, but it was for a round trip.
"When all those mills shut down, the community took a big hit," said Bucs special teams coach Dave Wannstedt, Revis' coach with the Panthers who grew up 34 miles away in Baldwin, Pa. "When you grew up in western Pennsylvania, in mining towns and steel towns like Aliquippa, there was a mind-set that to get out of the mills and the environment, sports was a way out. How am I going to get out of here and make a better life?"
If not for some luck, and ducking, Revis' life might have ended like so many others in Aliquippa — on the receiving end of a bullet.
When he was a sophomore at Pitt, he went into a Cureton's Mini Market with his half-brother, Jacquay, to purchase Air Jordans. As they walked out of the store carrying the shoes, a white car pulled up in front of the store, a young man jumped out and started shooting.
Revis and Jacquay dived behind a truck, which would get riddled with bullets.
"It was like one of those thriller movies. It happened so quick," Revis said. "You're just sitting there in shock; like, 'Wow, this is really happening. Guys are shooting.'
"I dove behind there and saw shots. After that, there were people in the street. Everybody was scattering and running. It was one of those moments. I was a sophomore at Pitt, and I wouldn't be here today. I experienced it. And that's the crazy thing. You never know."
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Despite being a first-round draft pick (No. 14 in 2007) and three-time All-Pro, Revis has never strayed far from Aliquippa. He returns each year as he did recently to host a football camp as part of his Revis Island Foundation.
"Revis Island" started when he was with the Jets and became an alter ego he quickly embraced.
"I was in my second year with the team," said Revis, whom the Bucs acquired in April for a 2013 first-round pick and conditional 2014 pick. "I remember the interview. It was in the locker room with a bunch of reporters, and they asked, 'How do you feel out there being on an island?' I said, 'It feels like Revis Island.'
"The next day, the New York Times and all the media was (writing about) Revis Island. At that point, I was talking to my agent, and I said I should trademark that name. And I actually ended up doing that just to be safe because it was blowing up."
Tropical nickname aside, Revis is still a son of Aliquippa, which forged him the way steel is bent — with fire and force. For as much as he made it out of the crumbling city, it also made him Revis.
"It taught me a lot about life," he said. "I'm proud to be a Quip."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]