Looking out at the Eagles' practice field from the cafeteria of the NovaCare Complex in Philadelphia, Vince Papale is taken back to his days at Training Camp. He remembers the grind, the sweat, the determination required as he and his teammates completed two-a-days in the heat and gave everything they had to prove themselves and make an impression.
In reality though, it's been 40 years since that experience. Forty years since Papale beat the odds and made a name for himself as the 30-year-old rookie who surprised all the doubters and made the Eagles' roster.
"It seems like it was yesterday," Papale said. "I was just talking to a couple of the guys out there and just already remembering. When I get to Training Camp, all of a sudden I start visualizing what it was like 40 years ago at that first Widener Training Camp."
When first-year Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil announced the Eagles would hold open tryouts in 1976, Papale took a leap of faith. He was confident in his skills, even though he had limited experience having not played college football.
Regardless, becoming an Eagle was his dream and the golden opportunity was right in front of him. It was now or never, and Papale wasn't about to let his only shot slip away.
"It was there and it was waiting for me. I thought I could do it," Papale said. "I was a season ticket holder and I'd sit in the stands and go, 'You know, I could do this given the chance.' I never thought I'd get the chance and darned if I didn't. Thank God that Dick Vermeil gave me the opportunity and I was in perfect position as a school teacher at Interboro High School. I took a leave of absence and they said, 'Go chase it.' I chased it."
That decision led to three years in the NFL, as Papale played for the Eagles from 1976-78. His story is one that's now well-known, but Papale will never tire of describing the moment he realized his dream, the day he became a Philadelphia Eagle.
"They never told me I made the team, so I came to the locker room after the sixth preseason game. I went into the locker room and there was my name up in plastic," Papale recalled. "I had a locker and my name was spelled correctly. There were a couple of wide receivers that were still on the roster whose names weren't up there, but I still didn't know I had made the team. Then right before practice starts, the guy that we know as the Turk, he's the guy who cuts guys from the team, he came walking toward us. I thought he was walking toward me and was going to cut me at that point. I literally lifted the playbook and was ready to hand it to him and he started laughing. He grabbed the guy next to me and he said, 'Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook.'
"Now, I didn't want to throw the party right then or pop the champagne because I still wasn't told officially. Finally, I get out on the field and now I'm looking around. I'm thinking, 'Oh my God. I think I'm an Eagle, but I don't know.' Then Coach Vermeil walks over to me and he looks down with his great smile and says, 'Hey old man. Congratulations. You're a Philadelphia Eagle. Welcome to the team.'"
After his playing career ended, Papale never could have imagined what was in store next. He thought his experience was unique yet still relatable, but a movie? He never would have guessed.
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, Disney's *Invincible *immortalized the wide receiver's hardships, his accomplishments and his overall life.
"I was approached by NFL Films to do a feature on Monday Night Football. The fans will remember this game because we were playing the 49ers and Donovan (McNabb) was down with an injury. Koy Detmer came in and then he went down and A.J. Feeley came in and we won the game," Papale said. "Stuart Scott and Ron Jaworski were doing the pre-game show and they had a feature called Distant Replay. NFL Films and ESPN produced this piece comparing me and Sylvester Stallone, Rocky, because it was the 25th anniversary of the movie Rocky. That's how the whole thing started.
"I'm on national TV, had a whole bunch of people at our house, a big party because they wouldn't show me the feature in advance. It was about 12 years ago and the next day Hollywood was calling. One thing led to another and we locked with a guy Ken Mock from 10x10. They said they were going to write a script. The producers were Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, who did Miracle, The Rookie, Secretariat, The Game Plan. So, it had a pedigree and it had Disney. They were all behind it and when they said they were going to green-light it, it was one of the happiest days of my life."
The movie released in 2006 and to this day, Papale is "still pinching himself" over it. It seems like a dream to him most days.
The film immensely changed his life as he was thrust into the spotlight and suddenly had people looking up to him. Vince Papale become an individual others could related to, someone they could connect with. The former Eagle took on that role happily, sharing his advice and other personal experiences with anyone - and everyone - who asked.
"They see in that movie somebody like them that has the dream and was told by others and bullied by others that it couldn't happen and yet somehow, someway because that person has the passion and they get an opportunity that dream comes true," Papale said. "That's what it's all about. That's what I'm most proud of."
Forty years ago, Papale couldn't have imagined life turning out the way it has. He lived out his dream and continues to do so now all because he showed up at Veterans Stadium one summer afternoon and one specific coach believed in his potential.
The rest, as they say, is history.
"I always go by a quote, 'It's never too late to get in the game.' The message there is that we all have the potential to do something extraordinary, do the impossible, do the unthinkable and maybe have that dream come true," Papale said. "The message is, don't let people tell you that you can't do it. Surround yourself with a good team because the teamwork makes the dream work. Surround yourself with a good team and if you hustle, you work hard, you have a good attitude, you can do it.
"And if you don't, so what? At least you know you gave it everything you had. That was always my feeling when I was trying out for the team. If I didn't make it, I had nothing to lose. I had my fallback. I would have gone back and taught at Interboro and coached. But, it happened and here I am at this magnificent facility, watching my friend Doug Pederson coach and feeling part of the team, saying I'm an Eagles alum. That's the greatest fraternity in the world, being a Philadelphia Eagles alum."