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
October 02, 1977

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.

"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 maître 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."

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.

PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThe former Sandy Bianchini urged Papale on. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEThanks to his headhunting on the special teams, Papale now has all of Philadelphia at his feet. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEPapale caught his first pass in the 1977 opener.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)