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Real-life ‘Invincible’ star living a new dream

Former NFL walk-on Papale enjoys return to limelight with release of film
/ Source: The Associated Press

Vince Papale once lived a dream. Now he’s living a second dream by revisiting the first.

A substitute teacher and bartender who never played college football, he tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 and made the team at age 30. That unlikely tale has inspired “Invincible,” starring Mark Wahlberg as Papale and Greg Kinnear as Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil.

“It is a second dream,” Papale, now a youthful 60, says of the movie. “I’ve been reinvented. For me, it’s a resurrection of sorts. ... What’s great about it is I’m now talkin’ to another generation.”

Papale was down on his luck in the ’70s, when big Northeast cities like Philadelphia were suffering tough economic times. The movie opens with a montage that hints at blue-collar despondency, angst, even anger, which serves as a backdrop for the rest of the movie.

He got laid off from his teaching job, and he was scrounging for more hours behind a bar named Max’s. His wife moved out, leaving a note saying he’d never amount to anything and never make any money.

Papale says he ran up some debt because he was making a decent buck in the World Football League, which quickly folded. “You do some stupid things because the first time in your life you have some money,” he says in an interview. “Then all of a sudden there you are: You don’t have those bucks that are coming in all the time.”

With the dissolution of the marriage and dim job prospects, Papale says: “I was feeling rejected. I wasn’t feeling real good about myself.”

Phoenixlike ascendancy
For sports fans, Papale’s phoenixlike ascendancy was amazing because, aside from his brief stint in the short-lived WFL, he played just one year of high school football. He went to St. Joseph’s University on a track scholarship.

He was 5-foot-7, 160 pounds when he was 18. No college was going to beat down his door to offer a football scholarship. But by college graduation, he was 6-foot-2, 185 pounds.

Mostly he played rough-touch football with his friends. His favorite scene in “Invincible” shows them playing in the mud: “It just showed the pure innocence and joy of playing. And to me, it was a bunch of guys who are over the hill but they became kids again, and it just transcended time.”

He also enjoys that his children have little cameos: his 12-year-old daughter throwing a football in a city street, and his 9-year-old son running in front of a car to retrieve the ball — with Papale’s No. 83 taped on his T-shirt.

Papale’s late father wasn’t originally in the script, but that changed after he drove director Ericson Core, a cinematographer making his directorial debut with this film, to where he grew up in Glenolden, Pa. As they were driving away the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” came on the radio.

“I said, ‘There it is. That’s the sign. That’s Kingey right up there — my dad’s nickname was Kingey —telling us he’s gotta be in the script.”’

The movie takes liberties with Papale’s story. For instance, he didn’t meet wife Janet (played by Elizabeth Banks) during his playing days. They recently marked their 13th anniversary.

But Papale understandably focuses on what the movie conveys about his life.

“The spirit and the essence of the struggle that I had to go through, not only to overcome some things from the past and some issues that I had to deal with both financially and personally — they captured that, and also they captured the true nature of what I had to go through when I was on the field. The football action is absolutely dead-on, from the training camp and some of the shunning and hazing that I took from my eventual teammates.”

New coach willing to shake things up
Vermeil is depicted in the movie as a new coach willing to shake things up — and take a chance on a walk-on. In real life, it was Vermeil’s open tryout that led to Papale’s opportunity.

“Well, he was a big Italian kid that could run a four-five 40. He was a graceful athlete. He could change direction easily and efficiently. And he had a tremendous passion to play,” Vermeil recalls in a recent interview.

That passion translated into Papale fearlessly covering punts and kickoffs. The movie shows Vermeil overruling the majority of his assistant coaches who wanted to cut Papale.

“When it came down even between him and another receiver/special-teams player (at the final cut) we kept him because of his charisma, and his appeal to the South Philly fans where the stadium is, and then to his talent as well,” says Vermeil, who went on to win a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams.

Papale played in the NFL for three years. But he wasn’t set for life. His first year’s salary was $21,000, though that was nearly double what his last teaching job paid. In his final year, he pulled down $45,000.

When his playing days ended, he became a part-time sportscaster for a Philadelphia TV station, then was let go in a management shake-up. He wound up as regional sales director for Frito-Lay, then worked on a couple radio stations. But it was never the springboard back to TV that he thought it might be.

These days, he works for Sallie Mae and gives motivational speeches. He also beat colorectal cancer five years ago and has become a spokesman for awareness about the disease.

And having children relatively late in life, he sees his foremost job now as being a “full-time dad.” He keeps an office at his Cherry Hill, N.J., home to make sure he’s around for his children.

Papale’s feel-good story was largely forgotten until NFL Films did a feature on him that aired on ESPN four years ago — and Hollywood took notice.

“I just want people to like the movie, that’s all,” Papale says, “and to come away feeling good about themselves and this character they see up on the screen.”