The closest thing to an old-fashioned cavalry charge in these pallid times is a pro football kickoff. The contending troopers approach one another at full gallop and collide with a rattle of armor and elbows, a thud of knee and forearm and helm. Stricken bodies spin and fall; the wounded lie strewn on the greensward. For sheer bone-crushing, it is the high point of the battle.
If the analogy is valid, then Vince Papale of the Philadelphia Eagles constitutes a one-man Charge of the Light Brigade. Last season, at the venerable age of 30, Papale was the oldest rookie ever to play in the National Football League. He won a spot on the roster almost entirely on the strength and savagery of his special-team play. Skewering kick returners with lance-like precision, cutting down tacklers with headlong abandon, covering punts like a hungry horsefly, he led the special teams with 27 initial hits, 18 solo tackles, nine assists and one forced fumble. When the bomb-squad coaches instituted a "Who's Nuts?" award for each game—a white T shirt with a green eagle and the operative phrase across the front—Papale promptly won four of them. "There was no one like him on the Rams," says Quarterback Ron Jaworski, newly acquired from Los Angeles. "No one plays special teams like Vince. As a receiver or a bomb-squad guy, he gives everything he's got, all the time." In the Eagles' opening game this season, a 13-3 defeat of Tampa Bay, Papale had one solo tackle, two assists and—Hallelujah!—caught his first-ever regular-season pass, a 15-yarder from Roman Gabriel. Last Sunday he had another solo tackle as the Eagles lost to the Rams 20-0 at Los Angeles.
Papale's performance on the special teams has led to his lionization by the Eagles' long-frustrated fans, who have had little to cheer about since 1960, when Chuck Bednarik and Norm Van Brocklin led Philadelphia to the NFL championship. Indeed, the Eagles have had only one winning season in the last 16 years. In Papale the fans understandably see a pigskin equivalent to Rocky Balboa, the aging South Philly pug who gets a shot at the heavyweight title and gives it all he's got.
Indeed there is a lot of Rocky in Vincent Francis Papale. Like the Italian Stallion, Papale is unsparing of himself in training, both in season and off, displaying an up-by-the-boot-straps striving toward self-made excellence. Like Rocky he is at home among the saloons, pushcarts and narrow, teeming streets of South Philadelphia, where he frequently runs six miles of a wintry morning. Like Rocky he has his own "Adrian," a girl named Sandy who inspired him to fulfill what most of his friends thought a quixotic dream—coming off the sandlots with precisely zero games of college football behind him to audition for a job on an NFL team. But in many ways he is Rocky's opposite. For one, he can talk articulately. He made 150 speeches—some paid, most not—during the off-season.
"In the first place, I'm only half Italian," says Papale in a mock whisper. He's tooling his blue Datsun 260Z through the claustrophobic side streets of South Philly. Crowds of handsome, hard-eyed boys cluster on the street corners, dribbling basketballs and talking cool with their girl friends. "If they ever find out"—he gestures at the kids—"I'm done for. My mother is of Welsh descent. Her maiden name was Almira Sage. What's worse, I'm not even a Catholic. My mother's quite a gal. Played shortstop here in Philly for the Raphael Bobbies in a women's hardball league—professional ball. Hey, she actually got paid for it! I got a picture of her up spearing a line drive. Whenever I wanted to have a catch and my dad was at work on the evening shift at Westinghouse, she could do it. She had a better arm in those days than anyone on the block, other than my dad. The first hardball glove I had was my mom's; it was the old type, you know, no webbing between the fingers and very little padding. I learned what it was like to get stung very early on in life."
Papale is a shaggy-haired, ebullient extrovert with the looks of a younger, tougher Joe Namath but none of his "In crowd" slicks. His mood is more that of a rookie than of an "old man." Born in Chester, Pa., southwest of Philadelphia in Delaware County, he grew up in suburban Glenolden where he was the Seattle Slew of his housing project.
"Nobody could outrun me," Papale says. "Every night we'd have a footrace in the big recreation area in the center of the project. The dads would sit in their canvas chairs making book and laying off bets. I always went off at 1 to 5, and I retired undefeated."
As a kid, Squint, as he was then called, already showed athletic versatility. He was a stick-out at baseball, basketball and football, as well as in running. "The only hangup was my size," he recalls. "At 13 I was 4'11" and 85 pounds. As a senior in high school I'd barely reached 5'5" and 145 pounds. Thank God, I grew late." Between the ages of 18 and 21 Papale added nine inches and 40 pounds to top out at a respectable 6'2" by 185 pounds. Still, a lack of size never deterred his hopes. In his first game in the Delaware County 100-pound league, Papale took a double-reverse hand-off and skittered 99 yards for a touchdown, "carrying the ball in one hand and holding up my pants with the other."
He hit .510 for the JVs at Interboro High School and competed in the high hurdles and long jump for the varsity track team. He excelled in the pole vault. In his first dual meet, Papale vaulted 11'2" for a school record, and by the time he was 18 he had hit 14'4".
"But the main thing I wanted to play was football," Papale says. "That's where the size hurt me. I was afraid to go out until my senior year, because I was so small." But Papale made it as an offensive end and teamed with Quarterback Jim Haynie (who played for West Chester State College and was later drafted by the Minnesota Vikings) to lead the league, win All-City honors and set a school record for most receptions in a season.