Perfectly familiar story

The Baltimore Sun

Look up the statistics for former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale, the central figure in the Disney football movie Invincible that opens today, and you'd wonder: A whole movie on this guy?

The numbers are: three seasons, 41 games, one catch for 15 yards.

That's it.

But the impact that Papale had on his team and its fans when he played from 1976 through 1978 was an emotional whole far greater than the sum of his statistics.

And that's why when a few dozen Ravens previewed the movie this week at an Owings Mills theater, the current athletes - many of whom weren't born when Papale retired - related to the tale of the 30-year-old rookie who started his trip to the NFL at an open tryout. The odd audition was one way first-year coach Dick Vermeil tried to revive a moribund franchise and rekindle fan hope.

"Sometimes it's one play, sometimes it's just one player who is in the right place at the right time," Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas said after the movie. "When that happens, you can really feed off that and it can start making people believe."

Papale, often referred to as the real-life Rocky, went from Eagles season-ticket holder to the special teams captain who made a handful of decisive plays in his three seasons.

The film, in which 5-foot-8 Mark Wahlberg plays the 6-2 Papale, showed the unlikely hero forcing a fumble on a punt against the New York Giants and recovering it for a touchdown in just his second game to help Vermeil get his first win as an NFL coach.

Actually, it was ruled that the ball couldn't be returned, but Papale's recovery was still key. Later in his career, he forced a crucial turnover on a punt in a victory over the Washington Redskins after calling an audible.

The movie's creators took a few other artistic liberties, as Hollywood often does, such as depicting Papale as being from South Philadelphia. In truth, he was from a gritty, blue-collar suburban area in neighboring Delaware County, where he played in a rough-touch bar league with his buddies.

And while it was true, as the film points out, that he had never played college football - he was a track and field athlete at Saint Joseph's University - Papale did play for the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell in the mid-1970s.

But despite some historical tweaks, including the details of Papale's marriage at the time, the movie accurately portrayed the palpable way that he influenced how the team was perceived by its fans. And its underlying theme was familiar to some Ravens.

"I feel like I'm the same kind of guy as Papale," tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "He wore the same number [83] that I do and I've gone through so much just to get to where I am. I was in the league three years before I even had a chance to get on the field.

"It's about motivation, determination and never give up. It's all about heart."

There were parts of the movie that hit close to home for this particular audience. In one scene in which celluloid players were being cut from the team in training camp, real players fidgeted nervously in their seats and moaned "turk" and "grim reaper," traditional nicknames for team personnel who bear the bad news.

And they took obvious notice of the relentless, two-a-day practices that were typical of Vermeil's grueling training camps.

"If you take a throwback player like those guys and you match him with the sophistication of the modern-day athlete, those are the players who stand out," defensive back Robb Butler said. "And those guys - the ones who get their noses bloodied - get the crowd going because they're resilient, just like Vince."

Today, Papale, 60, lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., with his wife and two children and is head of special projects for Sallie Mae fund, the charitable arm of the nation's leading provider of student loans.

He's also a cancer survivor after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer five years ago.

"The first guy who called me after surgery was Dick Vermeil," Papale said.

Although the kick-coverage standout was finished by a shoulder injury two years before the Eagles went to the Super Bowl in January 1981, Vermeil has credited Papale with helping turn around the psyche of the team from perennial losers to NFC champions.

"My first year, I was just in a fog. I just had no idea," Papale said. "But in my second season, as people would come up to me and I'd be asked to do speaking engagements, the support I got from fans was just overwhelming. It was even more so after I got cut in 1978 and then Dick brought me back"

In his current job, Papale speaks to middle school students, encouraging them to continue their education and handing out scholarships to kids in need who will be the first in their families to attend college.

"At this point in my life," Papale said, "I just feel that I have an extreme responsibility to people to try to help them and realize their own dreams."

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