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RECOVERING FROM A ROCKY START
Robert F. Jones
October 03, 1977
When Rocky Balboa got his chance, he lost the fight. But when 31-year-old sandlot retread Vince Papale got his chance with the Philadelphia 'Yiggles,' he won the struggle
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October 03, 1977

Recovering From A Rocky Start

When Rocky Balboa got his chance, he lost the fight. But when 31-year-old sandlot retread Vince Papale got his chance with the Philadelphia 'Yiggles,' he won the struggle

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"Part of the reason I loved football so much was because they wouldn't let me play," he says. "But a lot of it was my identification with the Eagles. My dad and I had season tickets and we sat in the upper deck with the rest of the real people, eating our hearts out for the 'Yiggles.' Tommy McDonald was my guy—a little dude who'd run through a brick wall to catch a pass. When I finally made the team, I wore Tommy McDonald football shoes and a single-bar mask like he did, and when I got hit I'd hop right up again, just like Tommy. I actually met him once—him and Bednarik—after some banquet and told him I wanted to be an Eagle, too. But everyone said I was too little. 'Ahh, they told me that same crap,' McDonald said. 'Don't believe it. Just keep shootin', kid, and you'll do it.' That meant more for me, even then, than his autograph."

Unfortunately for his real ambition, the only sport in which Papale could win an athletic scholarship was track—at St. Joseph's College in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia. And St. Joe's had no football team. Shelving football for the time being, he concentrated on track, competing once again all over the lot: pole vault, triple jump and long jump (in all of which he set school records); high jump and 120-yard hurdles, plus relays. During two of his college seasons he was the top scorer in the Middle Atlantic Conference meet, winning the vault and the triple and high jumps, and finishing second in the pole vault. Coach Kevin Quinn called him the best natural athlete he had ever coached.

"But there ain't no pro track," says Papale, "at least nothing you'd want to dedicate your life to. So when I graduated I took a job teaching accounting, bookkeeping and business law at Interboro High. I was also the head track coach and an assistant football coach. I kept in top shape. By the time I was 24, I had decided to take a crack at the '72 Olympics in the decathlon. I started a weight program and entered a lot of meets as an independent. I hoped to get enough points to make the Olympic Trials. But it's tough as an independent. The track establishment treats you like a leper. When I sent an application to the Drake Relays, the director sent me back the snottiest, most degrading letter I'd ever received. In effect he said, 'Who do you think you are? We don't let jerks just walk in off the street and mess up our fancy meet.' I never felt lower in my life. But that letter proved to be a big help to me, a goad of sorts. After I'd crumpled it up, I took it out of the trash can and kept it on my desk. Whenever I felt like quitting, I'd read it again and say to myself, 'I'm going to show you who I am, you bleepety bleep.' Now it's framed on my wall, along with some pictures from the Eagles. That's what I call my 'Last Laugh Corner.' "

Papale wheeled the car to a halt outside a restaurant called, simply, The Saloon. Entering through a door marked LADIES, he was greeted by the ma�tre d' and some of the drinkers bellied up to the antique wood bar. "Hey, Vince! How's it goin', man?" "Hey, give 'em hell on Sunday!" Slaps on the back, warm grins, light punches to the shoulder. The interior was dark with the richness of restored wood, lit by cut-glass chandeliers and guttering candles, which made the pewter and fine china gleam. An elegant eatery.

"So I didn't make the decathlon trial," Papale continues, after taking his seat at a corner table and ordering a white Dubonnet on the rocks. "During the time I was training, I'd break up the weights and track routine by playing in the Delaware County Rough Touch League. I was on four teams from 1969 to last year—Cannon's Cafe, the Deecon Ale House. The Gross Place and Maximillian's. Actually, the first three were all the same bar, under different names, just around the corner from Widener College in Chester, where the Eagles' training camp is.

"Delco League rough touch is just what it says—no pads, hard hitting—and seven men on a side. I was a wide receiver, and although I led the league in receptions, I also collected three broken ribs, a dislocated jaw and a couple of concussions. We played on a field behind a rock-'n'-roll joint called the T-Bar—all rocks and broken beer bottles, with here and there a patch of worn-out grass. We had more fights in that league than touchdowns. They used to say, if you wanted to train for Delco ball, go down to Acapulco and dive off the cliffs—no fair aiming for the water. That's where I learned to hit—and to like it."

Later, Papale signed on with a local semipro football team, the Aston Knights, and in 1973 was the second leading receiver in the Seaboard Football League, with 60 receptions. The next year he won a tryout with the World Football League's Philadelphia Bell and, with his 4.5 speed in the 40, plus his willingness to mix it up on special teams, was among the handful of the 800 aspirants to make the squad. He was 28 years old.

"I beat out some NFL veterans to make the Bell," he says, "and on opening day in 1974 I was the starting split end. But they rarely threw the ball my way, so I stayed on playing rough touch for The Gross Place. That way I at least got to feel the ball every now and then. I was pretty proud to have made it all the way to a pro team, even though the WFL wasn't the NFL by a long shot, and the Bell sure wasn't the Eagles. Even at that, when the Bell went under with the rest of the league in '75, I took it pretty hard. My first marriage had broken up largely because of my insistence that I could and would make it, first as a decathlon star, then as a pro-football player.

"I began to wonder if I hadn't been kidding myself all along. When that worm of doubt starts eating at your guts, it's pretty miserable, especially late at night. Thank God for Sandy—that's my girl, Sandy Bianchini. We got married last June. She kept my spirits up when I would have quit otherwise. Then Rich Iannarella, who'd been general manager of the Bell, became my agent and got the Eagles to give me a look at their rookie camp in the spring of '76. I'd written to the Eagles, asking for a tryout, back when Mike McCormack was coach, and had been told firmly but politely to shove off with the rest of the kooks. But this time they said, O.K., come on down."

What new Coach Dick Vermeil saw impressed him. Papale had speed and sure hands, but most of all, he exemplified what Vermeil calls Eagle Effort. Says the coach, "He had everything going against him—30 years old and no college football experience. But he didn't drop a pass, and he could turn a 4.5-second 40 in tall grass. And he tried, tried and tried. I didn't care if he was 80 and a granddad. I wanted him in camp."

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