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Invincible (August 25, 2006)
By Cathy Schultz

Invincible is one of those "based on a true story" sports tales designed to inspire all of us ordinary, middle-aged folks with the belief that, given the right set of circumstances, we too could have been contenders. The film tells the story of Vince Papale, a thirty-year-old Philadelphian who, as we're shown in the film's opening scenes, has made rather a hash of his life. It's 1975. Papale's wife has just left him, he's broke, and his "career" consists of part-time bartending at a friend's tavern. But he does have a set of stalwart buddies, with whom he shares a passion for the Eagles, and membership in a local bar league where bone-crunching football games are played on abandoned lots.

Desperate to make something of his life, Papale shows up at an open tryout for the Eagles, where improbably his speed, skill, and gutsy attitude impresses Coach Dick Vermeil, who rewards him with a spot on the Eagles roster. This despite the fact that Papale hadn't played organized football since high school.

Implausible? Utterly. True? Well, sort of. Not to burst any Walter Mitty fantasies harbored by armchair athletes, but some of the facts of Vince Papale's admittedly impressive story did get stretched a wee bit in the film. But hey, that's Hollywood for you.

Q. Stretched? Say it ain't so! What got stretched?
A. His athletic experience, for one. It's true that Papale played no college ball, and only a year in high school. But he was a fantastic athlete who had won a track scholarship to St. Joseph's University, where he led the team to conference titles. After graduating, Papale became a successful track and football coach at a local high school, and kept in peak physical shape, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) to win a spot on the 1972 Olympic decathlon team.

But the film's most significant fudging is its omission of Papale's other football experience before the Eagles. Not only did he play a year of semi-pro ball, but in 1974 he won a spot on the Philadelphia Bell, a professional team in the World Football League. Papale excelled as a wide receiver and on special teams for the Bell until the league folded in October of 1975.

Q. So, Papale didn't show up to the Eagle's open tryout in 1976 on a whim?
A. Not quite. Papale, along with a few other Bell players, got an invitation to the tryout, and trained strenuously for it. But it is true that the tryout attracted an odd assortment of characters, as Vermeil remembered in a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer. "All kinds of people turned out. We had a doctor, guys with big bellies, kids… right out of high school." On the day of the tryout, Vermeil's eye was caught by Papale's skill, his hustle, but most especially by his ability to run a scorching 4.5 second 40-yard dash.

Q. The film shows Papale getting a lot of grief in training camp. Did that happen?
A. It did. His habit of running full-tilt on every practice play annoyed many of the veterans, as did the press's interest in the thirty-year-old rookie. And Papale's name stayed misspelled on his locker for months.

Q. Is Vince's bartending fictional?
A. He did bartend regularly after the Bell folded, and for a few months it was his main income. But unlike the hang-dog, down-on-his-luck character shown in the film, the real Papale had been a beloved teacher and coach for six years, and planned to return to his old job if his Eagles dream fell through.

The film, however, accurately depicted the fierce football games played in Philadelphia's bar leagues. (Though, being a Disney flick, the players' language is considerably cleaner than real-life.) Local bars sponsored the teams, and rivalries grew intense. 'Rough touch' football it was called, though in Papale's words, the games were far more 'rough' than 'touch.' Papale played enthusiastically in the bar leagues for years, despite breaking his nose and some ribs, and getting a few teeth jarred loose.

Q. Did his wife leave him as suddenly as shown in the film?
A. She did, according to Papale's memoir. But it happened in 1971, five years before the events of the film. It is true, though, that he used the nasty note she left him ("You'll never go anywhere, never make a name for yourself, and never make any money") as motivation.

Q. Did the film exaggerate the bond between Papale and Vermeil?
A. Not really. Vermeil liked the effort and the enthusiasm Papale displayed on the field, and as shown in the film, decided to keep him on the team over the objections raised by some of the coaches.

Q. Did Papale actually get plastered on the first play in his first Eagles game?
A. Not quite, though he did a bad job of coverage on the kickoff, and earned a loud chewing out by Vermeil as a result. But unlike in the film, Papale pulled himself together and played well enough during the rest of the game to win the coveted "Who's Nuts?" T-shirt awarded to the special teams player who had most impacted the game.

Q. What's a good book to get more information?
A. Papale's memoir, also called Invincible, is a fun read.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D. is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois.

Da Eagles! Led by Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) with a funky '70s 'do.

Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) shows his moves on the field...

...And off

© 2004 History in the Movies