It was 30 years ago when an up-and-coming football coach named Dick Vermeil was hired by the Philadelphia Eagles. The team was in disarray and the young coach knew it. In an effort to win back the fans he held an open tryout where one player was discovered. He was a special-teams player who could hit with authority and a lightning quick receiver with good hands. This is where Vince Papale’s NFL journey began.
A south Philadelphia native, Papale was always in good physical condition because of the sport he was passionate about – running. While several other intangibles played a factor, he always believed it was his speed that caught the attention of the NFL.
“Running was always my forte and that was my in because I was a track guy. So I ran and ran and ran,” he said with exuberance. “I used to actually lead the team every year in the off-season running program that they had. I ran constantly and every once in a while, Dick Vermeil would jump in and join me on one of the runs. I used to run through the streets of South Philadelphia, those runs in the movie were true. And I used to run in Roosevelt Park, across from the old Vet, and that’s where I used to run.”
The Disney movie “Invincible” is about the life and times of this memorable player. His first training camp could have been his last and the movie did its best to show his daily struggle to make the team that he grew up idolizing.
“The grueling training camp was right on the money, it was extremely difficult,” he recalled. “If you watched it closely you could see some of the grumbling of the veterans, you know Dick coming in a Hollywood guy and surfer boy, and all those kinds of things. He went through an awful lot of abuse and there was a lot of bitching and locker room lawyer-dom going on at that time. That was working to my advantage.”
Some events were changed in the movie and while it was true that Papale had never played college football he did play professional football in the old World Football League. The league was supposed to rival the NFL and took a few star players, including Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Paul Warfield of the Miami Dolphins, but they eventually went belly up (1974-75)
“I signed in the WFL in my first year for $16,000. I want to put this into perspective. I was teaching in Interboro High School, my alma mater, for six years, working on my master’s degree. I had 18 master’s credits in counseling at West Chester University, and I was a head track coach and assistant football coach and I was making $12,600 and I left that to go to the Philadelphia Bell for $16,000. I got offered $21,000 by Jimmy Murray (former GM of the Eagles) back in 1976 and I got a $3,000 roster bonus.”
Papale never really broke into the Eagles’ receiving core except on one occasion.
“I had one catch and that was Roman Gabriel’s last completion. It’s a great, great trivia question,” he said with a smile.
Papale only had a three-year career but he did manage to get a rookie card (1977 Topps No. 397, shown above) just like his idol, former Eagle receiving great Tommy McDonald.
“I have a few,” said Papale. “I heard they went from like 40 cents to $15 on eBay.”
Although Papale could go on all day about his former coach, he opted to talk about a call from the New York Jets talking about the difference between Eagles training camp today as compared to back then.
“Are you kidding me? It’s just like a palates class. It’s funny,” he remarked. “Terry Bradway from the Jets (director of player personnel) called me. The Jets are watching the movie this week. I just got off the phone with the head coach of the Jets, Eric Mangini. He told me he was going to watch the movie and how much of an inspiration it is to him and I said, ‘Oh my God.’
So Bradway called and he said, ‘You got to laugh, we’re having seven double sessions in our training camp compared to your 30.’ ”