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Knowing he needed to be in better shape than anyone else in camp, Papale quit his coaching job at Interboro High and began the grueling task of preparation. From April to July of last year he worked out daily at Veterans Stadium, ran countless miles through the side streets of South Philly, quit smoking, lifted weights, and ran wind sprints until his lungs felt like they were poking out of his nostrils.
"Even with all that work, I think down deep I wasn't really convinced I could make it," Papale says. "Those first weeks in camp were the toughest days of my life. Dick Vermeil works you hard—two-a-days every day for what feels like forever. A lot of the veterans would have nothing to do with me, except call me Sandlot. Some of the guys resented the fact that I was trying to take a job away from their buddies. One day a corner-back dumped me extra hard after I'd caught a pass and I got a slight shoulder separation. But I had it taped up and came out for the next session.
"The thing that helped was that Widener is near my home turf, so my dad and relatives, and even my buddies from The Gross Place and the Delco League, would show up at practice and yell their heads off whenever I caught a pass." In fact, Papale once went a whole week, two practices a day, without dropping a single pass. That, plus his hard hitting and sharp blocking, confirmed Vermeil's initial opinion of Papale. Whenever his name would come up at cut meetings. Vermeil would say no. "He's a character player," the coach said. "We need more like him, not less."
Papale caught 10 passes in the Eagles' preseason to lead the team and showed his toughness by taking no guff from opposing defensive backs. When Patriot Safety Tim Fox slammed an elbow under his chin and chipped three teeth (inflicting, as well, a deep tongue cut and a general loosening of all his lower dentition), Papale bided his time and then blind-sided one of the Patriots' defensive backs on the next series. He made it through the early cuts, but on the Monday before the regular season opener—that dreaded "Blue Monday" when a squad has to come down to the final 43-man roster—he was still in doubt.
"I was sitting by my locker just watching Dick's door," Papale recalls. "About noon he came out and saw me staring. He started to walk over to me and my heart went like into the deep freeze. I figured this was it and picked up my playbook to give him. Instead he puts out his hand for a shake. 'You made it, old man,' he says. I ran right out and called my dad. When I told him I was an Eagle, we both busted out crying like a couple of girls."
In the Eagles' 1976 home opener, a 20-7 win over the New York Giants, Papale's ferocious coverage under Spike Jones' high punt enabled him to force a fumble and recover it on the New York 10. That set up an insurance touchdown, and Papale was an instant hero to the usually contemptuous Vet Stadium fans. He battened on the adulation and the sportswriters' ink. "I've never seen a man play with such intensity," says Rod Rust, who coaches the special teams. "Vince will get knocked down three times, bounce up and still make the tackle. On punts, teams will put three or four blockers against him and even then they can't contain him."
"He's emotional," says Spike Jones, "but he backs it up with sharp play. He's the best punt-coverage man I've ever worked with. When I get my foot into the ball. I know that if it can be gotten to, Vince'll get to it."
With 6'8", 225-pound Harold Carmichael at one receiver and speedy Charles Smith at the other, Papale knows he's not going to see many passes come his way. When they do, though, he catches them. In Philadelphia's upset of the Patriots in an exhibition game this summer, he scored his first NFL touchdown. As with so many of his breaks, this was a big one—the game-winning score. Rookie Quarterback Mike Cordova threw from the Pats' 14, and although Cornerback Raymond Clayborn deflected the ball slightly, Papale made a diving catch in the end zone. The Eagles, down 10-0 at the half, took a 14-10 lead and went on to win 21-10. "I don't often dream about football the night before a game," Papale says, "but that night I did. I dreamed we won, 20-13. I guess I'm a slightly conservative dreamer."
Not really. When you consider that Vince Papale has realized the dream of every aging would-be jock from Hemingway's Robert Cohn through Thurber's Walter Mitty to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, then he's got to be the most radical dreamer of them all. And he's not fiction.