"INVINCIBLE" - THERE'S A LOT MORE - AND A LITTLE LESS - TO THE VINCE PAPALE STORY
By Hugh Wyatt
When Don Shipley wrote me to ask if I planned on seeing the upcoming Disney movie, "Invincible," I was all set to tell him, "of course." Don is now a vice-president of a major lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., but I still know him as the son of the late Dick Shipley, my coach when I played for the Frederick (MD) Falcons in the Interstate Football League, 38 years ago.
Don remembers those great days of minor league football, and he remembers some of the story which "inspired" the movie. And what he told me convinced me that I wouldn't watch the movie if they duct-taped me to a seat.
"Invincible" as Disney slyly tells us, is "inspired by a true story." It's the story of Vince Papale, who against long odds won a spot with the Eagles as a 30-year-old rookie, and managed to make a four-year NFL career out of it. He really did. That much is true.
But, as Disney tells it - and as Don Shipley warned me they would - Papale was essentially plucked off the streets of Philadelphia, a guy with no prior football experience to speak of who found himself playing in the NFL.
Nothing could be further from the truth. "Inspired by a true story" may provide Disney with the cover it needs to play fast and loose with that "true story," but it really isn't the true Vince Papale story unless it acknowledges the things that he did, and at an advanced age at that, to put himself in a position to get that shot at the NFL.
I know, because I was there at the start of the story.
It was the fall of 1973. The World Football League was on the horizon, and I was scouting the minor leagues of the East, preparing for the coming of the WFL. This one particular Saturday night, I was in a suburb of Philadelphia called Aston, Pennsylvania, watching a team called the Aston Knights play the Schuylkill Coal Crackers in a Seaboard Professional Football League game.
The Aston Knights had existed for years as the Ridley Township Green Knights. That was the team I knew when I had coached against them the previous two years, as head coach of the Hagerstown (MD) Bears - but at this particular point, since they were playing at a high school stadium in Aston, they evidently thought it was wise politically to adopt that name. (Things tend to be a bit fluid in the bush leagues.)
They were a rough, hard-nosed crew, and to tell the truth, something of an affront to most of the other teams in the league, because while the rest of us were striving to create an image of "minor-league" football, cultivating our local media, marketing our ticket plans, putting on innovative halftime shows (we once had a female skydiver land in the middle of our stadium in Hagerstown wearing only a Budweiser bikini) and featuring players gleaned from the training-camp rosters of NFL teams, the Knights' operation was barely a step up from sandlot.
They tended to be nomadic in terms of where they played their home games; they didn't draw at home and except for wives and girlfriends they had no following on the road; and while the rest of us played in smaller towns, where we were considered worth covering by the local media guys, the Knights, hidden out in the suburbs of a major sports market, got no media attention at all.
But they always came to play and they always had some pretty good players. There was the night in 1972 when one of my better offensive linemen, Dickie Keats, got a working-over by a guy listed on the roster as "Jimmy Jones" who, we were told after the game, was a local high school dropout. Dickie, a veteran who was at least 30 at the time, never heard the end of it from teammates - Damn! Whipped by a high school kid! It wasn't until years later that we all learned that "Jimmy Jones" had gone on to Temple and an All-Pro NFL career under his real name of Joe Klecko.
They were a mixed bunch, ranging from grizzled veterans of semi-pro ball to kids just out of high school to guys with solid college backgrounds. I recall a good running back from Duke named Frank Ryan, a linebacker from Notre Dame named Mike Kondrla, and a great little quarterback named John Waller, who had set all sort of passing records at Temple.
I'm not sure that they ever had a formal coach, and I sensed that their approach to practice was a good bit more casual than ours. And unlike the rest of us, who had the money to actually pay our players a little something every game, they didn't even have the money for buses - they carpooled to away games, even to places as distant as Portsmouth, Virginia and Hartford, Connecticut.
On their best nights, though, they could beat the most professional of us, and even on their worst nights, they could still give any of us a physical beating.
This particular night, against the far better-organized (and seemingly more talented) Coal Crackers, from the anthracite regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the Knights had one of their better games. They won, and a major reason was Waller's passing - and some incredible catches by a receiver I'd never seen before.
Not that that was so unusual. The Knights were feared for the way they could always seem to come up with some very good players who would play a game or two for them and then vanish, never to play for them again.
Since there was no game program - I said that they were sandlotters - I had to ask a few of the Aston people who this guy was, and I was told his name was Papale, which they pronounced "pa-PAIL.".
"Pa-PAIL" wound up the season as one of the Seaboard League's top receivers.
Fast-forward a few months to spring, 1974. I was by then Player Personnel Director for the Philadelphia Bell in the brand-new World Football League, and I had compiled a long list of prospects that our coaches were going to have to evaluate in short order before we decided whom to invite to training camp.
To work our way through that list, we set up several free-agent tryout camps in different parts of the country, one of them near Philadelphia.
Despite our depiction by some in the media, we were not rag-tag. Very few of the free agents at any of our tryout camps literally walked in off the street. Most of the players had been pre-screened, based on my scouting and that of others in our organization, or on recommendations of former coaches, and tryouts were by invitation only. (The NFL had fewer teams then, and far smaller rosters, which meant there were plenty of respectable free agents.)
For this particular camp, held in Medford, New Jersey, I made sure that we issued an invitation to this guy Papale.
Overall, it was a reasonably productive camp. We looked at upwards of 150 guys and wound up inviting roughly a dozen of them to come back later for another look. One of the dozen was Papale. In fact, he was the big hit of the camp.
Afterwards, our head coach and general manager, Ron Waller (no relation to quarterback John) shook his head in wonderment at what he'd seen. Papale - Vince Papale - was big (6-2, 190), he was very fast, he ran good patterns and he caught everything thrown near him. Waller (the coach), who'd spent part of the previous season as head coach of the San Diego Chargers, said "F--k, (roughly every tenth word out of his mouth was "F--k"), we didn't have anybody that good in San Diego!"
Right then and there we signed him to a WFL contract, calling for a flat $16,000, with nothing guaranteed. It wasn't bad money then, but to earn any of it he had to make the team, and he could be cut at any time. Oh - and we found out how to pronounce his name: "pa-PAL-ee."
Vince Papale's biography revealed that although he didn't have a lot of organized football in his background - he'd attended a college that didn't have football - he had solid credentials as an athlete. A very good athlete. He'd been captain of the track team at St. Joseph's College (now University) and had been a decathlete, a triple-jumper, a pole vaulter and a high-hurdler.
But until the previous season with the Aston Knights, he'd never played organized football. And he was now 28 years old.
He had been coaching track and substitute teaching in Delaware County, outside Philadelphia.
He would prove to be intense - fiercely driven to succeed - with the brains and the talent to go along with the drive. And now he had caught the coach's eye. I really think that Waller took something of a mentor's interest in seeing that his discovery would make it. Nothing wrong with that. Coaches do it all the time. And this guy really was good.
Surviving all the cuts, he made it all the way through our training camp at Glassboro, New Jersey, and onto the final 37-man roster - and the payroll. Competing neck-and-neck with some pretty good receivers, including former Kansas star Don Shanklin, Vince started several games at wide receiver for The Bell. Being a local kid, he had a large and very enthusiastic following, who wore tee-shirts with his face printed on them to all our games. That was 1974.
In 1975, with a new Bell head coach in Willie Wood (first black man, incidentally, to coach a modern-day pro football team), he played the entire season - all that there was, since the league folded about halfway through - but he didn't play that much offensively and he caught just one pass. He backed up the Bell's starting wideouts, former Eagle Ben Hawkins and former Montreal Alouette Ron Holliday, as well as the tight end, former All-Pro Ted Kwalick, and he played on a lot of the special teams.
Following the folding of the WFL, he became a free agent, and at some point was signed by the Eagles. I have no doubt that Vince's persistence - his absolute belief in himself and his refusal to take no for an answer - had something to do with it. I can picture him walking into the GM's office and demanding a tryout.
He made it with the Eagles and became a classic special-teamer, epitomizing the hardnose, blue-collar football that Eagles' fans appreciate. More than one reporter noted a resemblance to "Rocky," another Italian-American success story set in Philly.
But Vince's story is not Rocky, a product of Hollywood. Nor is it Rudy, a story that's been challenged, heartwarming though it may be, as phony by some of Rudy's teammates at Notre Dame.
Vince Papale's story is real.
But don't believe for one minute the movie's story that he was hiding somewhere (a "down-on-his-luck bartender," as the story goes) until his out-of-the-blue "discovery" by the Eagles. I was no fan of Ron Waller, my boss, but he knew talent, and he saw NFL potential in Vince Papale long before the Eagles signed him.
And it was the World Football League that gave Vince the opportunity to show he belonged on the field with real professional football players (yes, we had them, and plenty of them. Vince Papale was not the only former WFL guy to go on to a career in the NFL).
The Aston Knights and the Seaboard Football League (of which I was a co-founder) deserve a little credit, too, because without them Vince Papale would never have been able to go out at his age and play real football with real football players.
Without Ron Waller, without the WFL, without the Aston Knights and the Seaboard League, and without the athletic ability and determination of Vince Papale himself, the story would truly be unbelievable - which is the way Disney would prefer it to be.
But they didn't have to monkey with the story. It's good enough told straight.
THE PHILADELPHIA BELL ANNOUNCES VINCE PAPALE WILL BE GIVEN A FURTHER LOOK
THE PHILADELPHIA ROSTER AS TELEXED TO THE LEAGUE OFFICE
A PAGE FROM THE PHILADELPHIA-BIRMINGHAM PROGRAM, 1974
A PAGE FROM THE PHILADELPHIA-PORTLAND PROGRAM, 1975
ARTICLE IN THE VANCOUVER COLUMBIAN