Monday, January 12, 2015

An interview with the Invincible Vince Papale

(I hold all copyrights to this article which originally appeared on Yahoo's Voices platform in 2011. Photo credit: APB)

Family matters

Millions embraced the movie "Invincible" when it was released in 2006. That feature offered a snapshot of Vincent Francis Papale and his unlikely football career with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The passion in Papale's voice was most noticeable during the afternoon I spent with the Glenolden, Pennsylvania native. Not passion about himself, but about the people who have been and are significant in his life. He began by telling me about his own children.
"I'm really blessed. My life is my family. Everything is about them," Papale said.
He and his wife Janet have been married since 1993. They have two children, Gabriella and Vincent Joseph.
Gabriella, their daughter, is 17. She is an outgoing high school junior whose combined goals are to become a broadcast journalist and a Victoria Secret model. She is a cheerleader and works as a manager for the lacrosse team. Like her mother Janet, she is also a dancer.
"Gabriella is great with children. I support what she wants to do and also think that a tremendous profession for her would be as a school teacher. She is one of fifteen students who have been chosen at her high school to go to New Orleans later this year. They will be helping to rebuild homes in the areas that were affected by Katrina."
Vincent Joseph is Papale's 14-year-old son, whose dream is to follow in his father's footsteps and play in the National Football League.
"Vinny rules the world. His favorite player is Wes Welker of the New England Patriots. He's funny and has a lot of voices and characters, like Jim Carey. He's a gentle, kind, kid who participates in a program at school called 'Peer Leadership', which is an anti-bullying initiative."
Due to budget cuts, that program had been on the chopping block. Through the Papale's efforts and the involvement of Dick Vermeil, funds have been raised that will allow the program to continue for at least the next two years.

Cinder Block City

Life wasn't like a movie when Papale was growing up with his parents and an older sister. They lived in a housing project, in the Glendale section of Philadelphia, which he referred to as 'Cinder block city.'

"They built the place on a golf course and there was a creek that ran through our backyard. That is where I hung out when I was young."
Papale's mother, Almira Sage, was one of nine in her family. She was a professional baseball player in the 1930's, but don't think "A League of their Own." She barnstormed up and down the East Coast in a women's hardball league. She was also a diver, swimmer and a dancer. His mother wanted to be an Olympian, but the Great Depression, World War II and having to work to help her family, prevented that from happening.
Vince's father, Frank Papale, went by the nickname 'Kingie' and was also one of nine. Frank's mother died when he was born. His father, Vincenzo Papale, persevered through that hardship and through the discrimination that many Italian immigrants faced in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Vincenzo was a pig farmer, a cello player, a semi-pro football, a baseball player and a runner. He participated in the Penn Relays, as his namesake grandson would also come to do many years later.

Kingie and Almira

'Kingie' met his future wife, Almira, at a football game after getting into a fight with a player from the opposing team. That player turned out to be his future brother-in-law.
Like other men in the area, he provided for his family by working at a blue collar job on the Delaware River. He called Westinghouse his workplace home for 40 years. Because of the long hours his Dad spent at his job, young Vince caught passes that were thrown by his mother in their backyard.
The blending of prevalent athletic family genes and a strong free will, naturally made competitive sports a part of Papale's life.
"I knew I was good at sports from Day 1. Every July Fourth we raced at Glenolden Park. I would win all of the races for the 8 and under, 9 and under, 10 and under. People would bet on me. I ran barefoot and was known as Seabiscuit."
But, life wasn't all fun and games. One day in 1958, as Papale was coming home from school, he saw his mother being taken away in an ambulance. She was later diagnosed with Tinnitus, which is a ringing sensation in one, or both, ears. The condition permanently influenced her health and the life of her family.

A good coach makes a difference

Papale grew in size and experience during his teenage years. The roots of his nature were also forming through a number of positive influences, as many important coaches came into his life.
"One of the reasons I give, is because people gave of themselves to me," Papale said.
A lasting relationship was formed when Papale met George Corner, who was his first male teacher at Interboro Junior High School. An imposing man, Corner was also was the school's football and basketball coach. One day Corner passed by the lunch table where Papale was eating.
"I had been saying some unpleasant things about my mom and he told me that he didn't appreciate what he had heard."
Corner relayed to him that his own mother and sister had serious health issues when he was young. He told Papale that he understood how his mother's condition could affect his home life. He also told him that he would be there if he ever needed him.
"I leaned on him a lot and he took me under his wing."
Papale was 4 feet 5 inches tall and weighed only 75 pounds when he was in the seventh grade. By ninth grade, after he had grown to be 4 feet 11 inches tall and had gained another 20 pounds, he decided to try out for the football team.
"Coach Corner let me try out for the team and I made it. I also ran track and was a guard on the basketball team."

Marty Stern

His track coach, Marty Stern, became another mentor. Stern had just graduated from West Chester and like Papale was tough, despite his small stature.
"He was a little guy, who wasn't much bigger than me, but he could run like the wind. I had great speed, but he refined my style and made me feel really special."

New school - old coach

Papale initially faced a different atmosphere than he was use to when he first went to high school. The head football coach told him that he was too small to play on the team and so he didn't become a member of it. However, he did play basketball.

When he was a senior in high school an old mentor came back into his life, as coach Corner accepted a position as the head football and track coach.
"Coach Corner did the same thing that Dick Vermeil did for me years later, he broke the rules. Normally, first year seniors aren't allowed to come out for football, but I was. I wound up leading the team in receptions and touchdowns. I went on to become an honorable mention wide receiver as a 5 foot 7 inch, 160 pound player."
Papale broke his wrist shortly after Thanksgiving, 1963. Because of how bad it was shattered, he was told that he would never be able to use his hand again. But, he willed himself through to recovery.
Corner asked him to go out for track in the spring so that he could get into shape for the upcoming football season. Papale wanted to pole vault, but Corner said that he had promised his father that he wouldn't allow him to do that.
As a boy, Papale had practiced vaulting in his backyard using metal clothes line poles. Because they were so easily bent, he started using bamboo poles instead. Those poles, that were originally used in the middle of rugs, helped him vault up to 8 feet in the air before he landed on a makeshift bed of mattresses.
Papale has bamboo poles in his backyard these days as well. He will be using them to help his son practice vaulting.

The hairy eyeball

During his first track meet against Media, Papale's father unexpectedly appeared.
"I didn't know that he was going to be there. He came walking up in his Westinghouse blues and gave me the 'hairy eyeball' look, but didn't say anything."
Papale's father saw his son set the school pole vault record that day. He went on to win county, suburban and district championships. He also finished fifth in a state competition.
On Father's Day 1964, he went head-to-head against the best pole vaulters in the Tri-State area. Three of his competitors had been given scholarships to Villanova, LaSalle and St. Joe's. In dual meets he led off by winning the 440 meter relay and ran first and second in the high hurdles. He also won the long jump, the triple jump and the pole vault competitions.
Papale jumped 18 inches higher on that day than he ever had before. Four colleges offered him track scholarships before he left the field.

Onto college

By the time Papale was ready to go to college, he had grown to be 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 185 pounds. He was accepted into the West Chester state teacher's college. Walt Buechle was their freshman football coach and said that he would let Papale try out for the football team as a walk-on freshman.
Even though the school didn't have a football program, Papale decided to attend St. Joseph's University where he received a track scholarship. When he was a junior, he won the United States Track and Field Federation award at Madison Square Garden as a result of his14 foot 6 inch vault.
"Great coaches instill discipline, fundamentals and consistency. They are organized and fair. You know exactly where they stand," Papale said.
College coaches Rich Branton, Bob Cindico, Lou Nicastro and Kevin Quinn taught him that he could be a tough guy and a nice guy at the same time.
"My coaches were all school teachers. One of the big factors that is currently being lost in sports is the teaching element."


After graduating from St. Joe's with a Masters degree in Marketing and Management Science, Papale accepted a job as a track coach at a familiar location, Interboro High School.
During the spring of his first year as coach, Papale called for a weekend practice session to help his track team prepare for an upcoming meet. Because it was scheduled during the Easter holiday weekend, all senior team members chose to boycott practice. Papale decided that his runners needed to face consequences for their actions. So, he suspended them from participating in the upcoming meet.
"The first dual meet we were going to have, I was going to bend and let them back in, but I didn't. We lost that meet by one point."
One of the runners who did understand the value of discipline and sacrifice was Freddy Leopold. He had practiced and was going to participate in that dual meet.
"Freddy came from 50 yards behind in the mile relay. He got to the finish line and gave it everything he had, but was a yard behind the winner. Even without the seniors participating, if we had won that event, we would have won the meet."
Papale still has a photo of him holding Leopold in his arms after the race. The young runner pictured went on to serve his country as a medic in the military. He was killed after stepping on a land mine in Vietnam.
"To this day, I still get chills when I think about him in that race."

The NFL and Hollywood

Invincible became a movie because its subject, Papale, never stopped pursuing his dreams. In the 1970s, while teaching and coaching, he also played semi-professional football and was a member of the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell.

In 1976, Eagles coach Dick Vermeil announced open tryouts for the team. At 30, Papale became the oldest rookie to ever make the roster of an NFL team. The feat was all the more remarkable because he had not played college football.
He went on to be voted Special Teams Captain by his teammates. Due to his charity work, he was named Eagles Man of the Year in 1978. By 1979, a shoulder injury ended his gridiron glory.

Business career

After retiring from the NFL, Papale worked in the mortgage banking industry and became a sports broadcaster. He also won a battle with colorectal cancer in 2001.
The Disney movie Invincible and Papale's first book, Invincible - My Journey From Fan to Team Captain were both released in 2006.

Invincible Kids

"Everyone has their invincible moment."
Today, he is a sought after speaker who has also initiated an 'Invincible Kids' program. This effort allows him to give voice to the spirit of children around the country who have overcome great odds and serve as inspirational role models.

Board of directors

Papale has recently been voted onto the Board of Directors, Charity Division, for the NFL Alumni Association.

"One of our initiatives is to help players who haven't been as fortunate as I have been."

New playbook

Consistency is one of the principals that Papale lives his life by. It is also something that he speaks about in his forthcoming book, Papale's Playbook: You Can Be Invincible In Tough Times...Analyze, Adapt and Achieve, which is due to be released later this year.
Never believe that people who achieve and maintain success do so by chance. Individuals like Vince Papale are smart and have consistently worked to have earned all that they have accomplished.

How we respond to the 'Invincible Moments' in our lives defines who we are and who we can become.

Details about Papale's life, as well as all of the positive efforts that he is involved in can be found on his website: Currently, he is also a spokesperson for


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