Any true Philadelphia Eagles fan knows who Vince Papale is and anybody with a heartbeat who's seen Disney’s "Invincible" (recently released on DVD) loves his story. Papale literally went from section 700 of Veteran’s Stadium and nightly bartender to a Philadelphia Eagles special teams gunner thanks to determination, grit and a ton of heart. Did we mention he was 30 at the time and still holds the record for being the oldest rookie ever to play in the NFL? Papale spent three and a half years with the Eagles before injuries ended his football career. In 2001, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, but once again rose above one of life’s challenges to recover from the disease. How do you fit this man’s incredible story into a 15-minute interview? The answer is you can’t, but Bullz-Eye.com was lucky enough to sit down with the amazing Papale to discuss a variety of topics ranging from the ’06 Eagles to how accurate "Invincible" really was and how his life’s story has touched so many people across the country. We also dove into how his teammates viewed him during his first training camp, his ongoing relationship with the coach who gave him a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and whether or not he really married a New York Giants fan.
Bullz-Eye: How’s it going, Vince?
Vince Papale: (in imitation Italian voice) Hey, yo, how ya doin’ Ant’ny?
BE: (laughs) From one Italian to another, huh?
VP: (laughs) How are you doing?
BE: Very good, very good.
VP: It’s a gorgeous day here (Philadelphia). Where are you located?
BE: I’m in Detroit, so it’s probably not as gorgeous.
VP: Hey, I spent a great week out there for the Super Bowl (Super Bowl XL). I loved it!
BE: Good! I think the city of Detroit did a really nice job.
VP: I think they did a magnificent job, are you kidding me? You guys should be so proud of how they handled that and the way downtown was set up. I was a guest of Disney so it was all good.
BE: (acting as if I had a hand in the set up process) That’s excellent, I’m glad you had a great time.
VP: Well hey, when I’m out, I usually don’t have a bad time.
BE: While you were at the game, did you want to go down to the field level and play a little special teams?
VP: I would kill to go down and suit up again. I keep begging (Eagles head coach) Andy (Reid) for an over-60 league.
VP: Hey, I would sign a waiver! You wouldn’t even have to pay me. Just let me cover kickoffs or punts one more time.
BE: (laughs) You could still probably play! What do you think of today’s athletes?
VP: They’re phenomenal athletes – absolutely so gifted, strong and incredibly agile – but they may be a little bit pampered and sometimes need a loyalty check. I would never say they need a “gut-check,” but they just don’t seem to lay it out on the line like we used to. (Today’s generation) has a couple of the old-school guys, some throwbacks, but not as much as there used to be. You know, the throwbacks back then were the norm, not the exception. And now I think that’s the exception, that, and free agency. It’s all about the dollars.
BE: Is it safe to assume you still follow the Eagles?
VP: Oh my God! I’m the biggest Eagles fan on the earth. I’m so pumped up with what’s going on here in Philadelphia right now.
BE: Yeah, what do you think about Jeff Garcia? You almost have to like his comeback story.
VP: Oh, how can you not like that story? That’s an "Invincible" story right there on its own. And actually, you know, some of the current Eagle players get me involved in some of their charities, which I really enjoy doing. And one of the charities was a Donte’ Stallworth bowling tournament right around the corner from my house, and I was there and got to meet Jeff Garcia for the first time. I got to sit down and talk with him and we were just talking about how the fans are in Philadelphia, and I told him to just do what you’ve gotta do man and hold you’re own – you’re gonna do it. And then he had a couple of breakout games.
BE: Yeah, he’s really had a nice run.
VP: It’s just so exciting because there’s no controversy and it’s so pure. I have not seen the city as fired up about the Philadelphia Eagles. Even when they were making their run to the Super Bowl.
BE: (surprised) Really? Wow.
VP: Yeah, because it’s more of a feeling that this whole team is one of them. They really relate to this team because it’s down to earth and it’s not really made up with a whole bunch of superstars. I mean, Brian Westbrook is without a doubt a superstar, but there is just a certain earthiness about this team that has really connected well with the Philadelphia fans. And you know how harsh of fans they can be.
BE: I think we’ve all seen what Eagle fans can do.
VP: Hey, you’re gonna like this too. I found out that the Eagles showed "Invincible" to the team before the Giants game (a recent Eagles victory).
BE: Really? Well, how does it make you feel that your story –
VP: I was crying! I had goose pimples!
BE: Well, since you mentioned the movie, were you surprised that such an inspirational story and true underdog tale took 30 years to be made into a film?
VP: Yeah, you know, I guess I was surprised. I expected that there was going to be a certain positive reaction to it, but nothing like this. This has been totally overwhelming. Just in the last hour I’ve gotten two phone calls and two e-mails coming in from speaker bureaus who want me to go out and do some things, you know? So that’s one facet of it, but the other facet is just the response I’m getting from not only the Philadelphia area – you would expect that – but around the country as well. I was on a plane a few weeks ago coming back from Arizona and "Invincible" came on. And then people found out on the plane that I was in the audience. They were standing and cheering and coming up for autographs. And these were people from all over the country. The flight attendants kept coming up and asking me if I minded and I just kept saying, “I don’t mind, what could be better than this?” You know? How cool is this?
BE: I wish I could relate! That had to be unreal.
VP: Yeah, and there’s this whole new generation of kids that I’m reaching out to that never even knew that this story was there. And as I explain to people when I go talk to them, it’s not my story, it’s your story. Everybody has had to overcome odds and obstacles just to do something great in our lives. And people that can relate to that can relate to me.
BE: I think that’s what the greatest part of the story is. It’s such a great underdog moment and it speaks volumes to anybody that has a dream of playing professional football or professional sports for that matter. I mean, you didn’t even play football in college and look what you accomplished.
VP: Yeah, you know what it does too, Anthony? It transcends just wanting to play football, or any other sport for that matter, into any kind of a goal or dream or passion you have about anything. You know, for me in particular, I’m a cancer survivor, so it relates to that. Because when I speak to survivor groups or go out doing stuff for the pharmaceuticals and how important they are that’s just one aspect of all of this. Then the other aspect is the kids – they’re the dreamers. Then there’s the adults, they’re dreamers too, they all had dreams growing up. There’s a piece of "Invincible" in every person that has seen this movie and every person that I talk to. And the beauty of it is that there’s so many different layers, that it relates to a lot of people in a lot of different ways. And that’s what I like so much about it. And I just love bringing in new generations of kids into it that are excited about it. Because they look at me not as Vince the former Philadelphia Eagle, but they see me as the guy who overcame incredible odds to see a dream come true. And they say, “You know what, if Vince can do it, I can do it too.”
BE: That’s what it’s all about right there. Do you think the film portrayed an accurate account of your life at that time?
VP: Absolutely. We knew that liberties were taken; it’s not a documentary or a biopic. The liberties were okay with me, because look Anthony, I had to sign off on it. You know, if I wasn’t happy with it, I would have been beating people on the side of the head. My father wasn’t written into the first part of the script, but I protested so loudly that eventually they got him in and look how beautiful that was? They hired Mike Rich to put my dad in there in a few other scenes and it worked out beautifully. That would have been the only thing I really would have had an issue with, but other than that it was great.
BE: Do you feel like any significant moments were left out or do you have any regrets about the film in any way?
VP: No, no regrets. I would have loved if the movie would have gone back and showed me more as a kid like they did in "The Rookie." But I understand that there are budgetary restraints and we didn’t want to confuse people. But it would have been really neat to go back (to my childhood) and show the project where I grew up in. The project was sort of portrayed in the beginning of the movie with the director and the cinematographer, but I wished they had shown me more growing up and how insecure I was as an athlete, because of my mom being extremely ill. You know, my mother was a tremendous athlete. My mom was actually a professional baseball player, but she eventually succumbed to mental illness. So that’s what the allusion was all about in the film where my dad was talking to Vince about my mother being so sick all the time. It was really hard around the house back then.
BE: I can only imagine.
"(Today's athletes) are phenomenal athletes – absolutely so gifted, strong and incredibly agile – but they may be a little bit pampered and sometimes need a loyalty check.... It’s all about the dollars."VP: I talk about my mother being sick in the book I wrote too, only it was in more graphic detail. And that’s why I think it only makes my story and character stronger and more incredible.
BE: Give me a moment, good or bad, from your time with the Eagles that wasn’t shown in the movie.
VP: I guess the one thing they didn’t show was me having been voted captain by the team. That to me totally validated everything – not that making the team and me making all of those plays didn’t validate everything – but after I made that big hit against the Giants (climax of the movie for those of you who didn’t see it), I was invited to my first team party. And that to me was a big deal, you know, I won them all over.
BE: Yeah, talk about what the transformation was like with your teammates. Here are these veteran players that almost looked at you like a publicity stunt in your first training camp, to then voting you as one of the team’s captains. In the movie, it really seems like your teammates alienated you.
VP: Well, you have to look at it from their point of view. In some cases, I’m trying to take somebody’s job away and therefore take away one of their friends too. So that’s going to be a situation that’s going to cause a little bit of anxiety and hostility. And how I won those guys over was I just played hard and kept my mouth shut. Yeah, I was enthusiastic and I did a lot of yelling and screaming and cheering on the sidelines, but I wasn’t a real loud guy in the locker room. And then I just let my actions speak for myself and let them be my words. And I just won them over by making big plays. They realized I was a playmaker.
BE: It was hard to hate you when you’re making plays on Sundays.
VP: Yeah. They also resented that I was pretty much a Dick Vermeil favorite and he was certainly my biggest advocate. You know, Dick really pissed a bunch of guys off when he first came in. I mean, he ran that brutal training camp, just brutal. It was eight full weeks of double sessions.
BE: And there you are hanging with it through thick and thin.
VP: Oh yeah, I was in the best shape of my life and actually of anybody on that team. See, people forget that I was a decathlete and that I was absolutely in phenomenal condition. I could run forever, so he (Vermeil) wasn’t going to run me into the ground. The thing that was going to cut me was not being able to catch the football or not being tough enough to survive all the physical pounding I was about to take. But as for the running end, that’s what saved me. Speed kills. These defensive backs were wearing down and then when Dick found out that I loved to mix it up a little bit, oh man, that really won him over!
BE: (laughs) What’s your relationship like now with Dick Vermeil?
VP: A phenomenal relationship. I have always loved Dick Vermeil. You know, he gave me the greatest opportunity a man could ever get and to me, I’ll always be owing to him. He’s always been a tremendous friend and a great advocate. When he found out I had cancer, you know, the first person that called me was Dick Vermeil. And when I was out on a speaking tour and he found out that I was starting to run myself into the ground on the tour, the first person that called me was Dick to give me some advice on how to handle it out on the tour. He cares about me still, just like he cares about all of his athletes. He goes the extra yards and that’s why guys would give anything for Dick Vermeil as a coach. You just have to get to understand him and know where he’s coming from.
BE: And did you think Mark Wahlberg did a good job playing Vince?
VP: He was phenomenal – absolutely terrific. He’s a great actor, a great friend and I have nothing but very positive things to say about Mark Wahlberg. He’s a man’s man and as genuine as it gets. And I have to say that Greg Kinnear did Dick Vermeil perfect too. He did a great job.
BE: Well, here’s possibly my biggest question from the movie then, and I’m probably asking this on behalf of all Eagles fans…(pause) Did you really marry a Giants fan?
VP: I did not marry a Giants fan!
BE: So she wasn’t a Giants fan? It was all just movie magic?!
VP: She was not a Giants fan, no she wasn’t. But the part that was written for her (Janet, Vince’s wife) in the movie was absolutely brilliant. Janet and I loved it. But I will say this – the character that Elizabeth Banks plays in the movie is just as sassy as Janet.
VP: But they felt that in the best interest of not offending anybody, that she would be a Giants fan in the movie. But Janet loved it when she read it. But trust me, Janet is the oldest of nine and they’re all Eagles fans.
BE: Well Vince, I really appreciate your time and thank you deeply for sitting down with us.
VP: Well thanks Anthony, I appreciate your time too and I hope Detroit (Lions) turns it around one of these years for you guys.
BE: (laughs) Ooh, we may need a Dick Vermeil and an "Invincible" story to turn around things up here.
VP: (laughs) Oh, I don’t know, I think Dick’s given it up. But hey, you have a great holiday and take care.
BE: You too Vince, thanks!