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His very `Rocky' road to fame

`Invincible' relates the underdog story of Vince Papale, oldest rookie in the NFL ... to a point.

September 01, 2006|Neely Tucker | Washington Post

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — How long does glory last? What if the apex of your life mirrors an American icon of film, and then, 30 years later, Hollywood makes a movie about you?

If you're just-south-of-Philly kid Vince Papale, a real-life "Rocky" (Sylvester Stallone's boxing character), the oldest rookie in NFL history and the subject of Disney's "Invincible," you'd wonder about these things.

The phone is ringing off the wall, the BlackBerry is buzzing, a photographer is calling for directions to the house, and you have radio interviews stacked up like planes in a holding pattern.

All this nearly three decades after the cheering stopped and Papale's life seemed to fall apart in divorce, bitterness and blown opportunities.

They leave that stuff out of the movies, you know, the part about the rest of your life.

And yet, somehow, here he sits, tall and athletic at 60, barefoot, big smile, sparkling eyes, light streaming through the huge picture window in the living room: Larger-Than-Life Vinny Papale. Glory, once again.

"When I heard that Disney had bought the rights to the film," he says, "I just went primal. Went out of my mind. I was going, 'Disney! Disney!' The kids were in the car, they thought I'd lost it."

This time around, when Hollywood can gloss over the rough notes, it's almost better than the real thing.

In 1976, Vince Papale was a 30-year-old guy from Glenolden, a working-class suburb just south of Philadelphia International Airport. He was Italian American, from a huge family (his parents had eight siblings each).

Papale had a marketing degree, taught business classes at his old high school, tended bar at a friend's place. He'd played only one year of high school football, but he was a track star in college and had made it into the World Football League as a receiver, playing two years at about $800 a game before the league folded.

He was divorced, sharing an apartment with two other guys. Drove a beater. Ran six miles a day through the old neighborhood, staying in shape, one of these relentlessly enthusiastic guys you meet in a bar, telling you about his most recent game in a rough touch-football league -- see, man, there was this pass across the middle ...

When Dick Vermeil took over the lowly Philadelphia Eagles, he held open tryouts. Of all the ex-jocks, wannabes and good athletes who turned out, only one man got invited to training camp: Papale.

He survived and became the oldest rookie in league history. Eagles fans went nuts, some guy coming down out of the stands and making the team, right there with Harold Carmichael! He was even captain of the special-teams unit. A sportswriter dubbed him "the inVINCEble Papale," and a legend was born. He'd get on the field and Eagles fans would just go crazy.

Papale retired from football at 34 and went through several jobs before landing one in local radio for eight years. He went into the mortgage business, where he met Janet Cantwell, a world-class gymnast turned real estate agent, who would become his third wife.

But then "Monday Night Football" did a segment in 2002 about his Eagles heroics.

"Hollywood called the next day," he says, shaking his head.

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