When you grow up idolizing a player and supporting a team, you spend your life wishing that you were a member of the team. You wish that you were getting the chance to represent the city on a nightly basis and the opportunity to play your heart out for them every game just like the guys you grew up watching. For many, this dream usually comes to an end because the dedication that is necessary to make a career out of it seems to get lost along the way. For Chester, Pennsylvania native Vince Papale, playing for the hometown Philadelphia Eagles was something that he spent his entire life dreaming about and something that he never gave up on. Through hard work and perseverance, Papale proved all the doubters wrong and got to live his childhood dream.
Although he was known best for being a specialist on special teams, Papale also played wide receiver. He played two seasons with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League as a receiver and ended up getting an invitation from GM Jimmy Murray to the all-comers tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles because of his dedication and the way that he played the game. Coach Dick Vermeil had no idea who he was at the time, all he cared about was if he could perform – and perform he did. At the age of 30 Papale ended up making the team, making him the oldest rookie in NFL history to play without the benefit of college football experience – other than kickers. Papale stepped up right away, realizing how special this opportunity was for him. He was voted as Special Teams Captain by his teammates, as well “Man of the Year” by the team in 1978 for his charitable and community efforts that he put forth.
“I started getting heavily involved in giving back once I made the team. I was doing stuff before that though when I was a schoolteacher,” said Papale. “There was an event in the suburban Philadelphia area called the MC Walk For Mankind which was a 20-mile walk,” he continued. “One year when I was teaching, myself and another teacher were dared by some of our students to run the entire 20 miles or to complete it within 3 hours. The whole deal was if we did it in the three hours, they were going to do a fundraiser for a particular charity and we ended up doing it.”
“Once I started playing for the Eagles it became a natural thing to do because they had a great charity called Eagles Fly for Leukemia which benefited children that were stricken with leukemia at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,” he elucidated. “The owner of the team at the time, Leonard Tose, was the guiding hand and what he would do is for every dollar raised for the charity, he would match it.”
Aside from working within the community, Papale and other members of the Eagles would make stops around town every week to help brighten up someone’s day.
“Every Monday night a group of us would go visit different places in the city. One week we’d go visit the boys and girls at the children’s hospital, then another week we’d go to a burn center and we didn’t do it for the publicity, we did it for ourselves and for everyone in the community that needed it,” said Papale. “We didn’t do it with cameras or with publicists, we just did it because we cared.”
Long after his playing career, Papale is still using his name to benefit Eagles Fly for Leukemia and is still helping out in the community however he can. With the Eagles now having their own charity and partnership in Eagles Youth Partnership, Eagles Fly for Leukemia is now a corporation on its own, but one that has continued to grow.
“The Eagles have their own great charity and partnership in Eagles Youth Partnership as they focus on strengthening and developing the potential of young people in the greater Philadelphia area, but me being a cancer survivor I love working with Eagles Fly for Leukemia, especially since they have started to branch out from just leukemia and now raise money and awareness for other forms of cancer,” described Papale.
One of the things that Eagles Fly for Leukemia offers is their scholarship program. They give out full four-year scholarships to major universities in the United States to men and women who are cancer survivors, something that Papale is very proud of and happy to be a part of. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2001, Papale is now in his 11th year of being cancer-free and uses his own life experiences to help influence others and continues to use his voice to help save the lives of many. He understands how much a battle it is for these survivors, being a survivor himself, so he gives something back to those who have been through the same fight as him.
“We just celebrated our 11th year, and I say we because beating cancer is a team effort, it takes a lot of teamwork, especially within the family,” he said. “We celebrated our 11th year as a survivor and it has given me an opportunity to give back to all kinds of charities and helps give people hope. They take a look at me and see how active I am and they think no way, but it’s true, it happens and I had the scare of my lifetime when I went through it,” he continued.
“I’ve had people come up to me and tell me that they got a colonoscopy because of what I did and that’s the greatest reward, when people have tears in their eyes and tell you that you saved their life, even though I didn’t really save their life, I just helped raise awareness for them to go get checked out.”
What Papale was able to accomplish at his age will forever go down as one of the greatest underdog stories in the history of sports. He never gave up on his dream and proved to everyone that hard work and dedication pays off at some point. His story is so impressive that Walt Disney Pictures released the film Invincible in 2006, which is based on his story of becoming the NFL’s oldest rookie.
“It is beyond surreal to have your dream come true and have the respect and admiration of so many people, and to have Disney make a movie about my story is something that I could have never dreamed about since they make the most inspiring movies for children about following their dreams,” said Mr. Invincible.
“Having the movie is huge because now I’m in the position to go out and help motivate others to reach their full potential, no matter what they’re going through,” he continued.
“I don’t belong on this pedestal that people have put me on because of the movie, but it’s a role I’m willing to accept and I don’t mind being in this position because if that’s where they want me to be I’ll be there and I’ll accept it and I know that one of the responsibilities that comes with it is helping other people.”
Papale is very active within the community and lends his hand to many charities and attends many events. One of the events that Papale takes part in year after year is a walk for prostate cancer in honour of his good friend Gary Papa; a sportscaster with WPVI-TV in Philadelphia from April 1981 to June 2009 who passed away from prostate cancer in 2009. He learned a lot from Papa and continues to use his philosophy when he helps raise money and awareness for whatever the cause may be.
“Gary Papa used to say that the last dollar raised could be the dollar that finds the cure and in order for us to move forward we need the funds from fundraisers,” explained Papale. “I think about those words and it makes me glad to know that there are many people out there who realize how important it is to donate to these types of fundraisers.”
His philosophy is true, as over the years with more and more money being raised to help eliminate these diseases, a lot of them that used to be deadly, are now starting to be curable. Leukemia once had a survival rate of nearly 20% and is now close to 90%, all thanks to different organizations around the world that have been raising funds for a cure throughout the years. Papale has never stopped doing what he loves to do and that’s helping out within the community.
Giving back and helping out is something that runs in his family. The philosophy that they have in the Papale house is “Givers Get”, which means that you get more out of giving to other people than you do when you give to yourself and it’s something that he, his wife and his children all hold and are very proud of.
“One of the nice things is that the school they go to, Bishop Eustace, requires that students do so many hours of community work a week starting as a freshman and our daughter Gabriella has raised thousands of dollars each year for people in need around the world and it’s something that I’m very proud of,” mentioned Papale.
The Philadelphia legend also has his own Foundation called Invincible Kidz. Through his Foundation, Vince is working to help young people realize and reach their full potential. The money raised through Invincible Kidz goes towards education so the kids can reach their full potential and live a successful life.
Despite being so active in the community for over 30 years, Papale still believes that the players have a choice whether or not they want to be active within the community, but admits that it is something that he would try to influence them into doing.
“I think it’s a choice, just like anything should be a choice, but if I were to get in front of an athlete today and mentor them, I would encourage them to get out in the community and help out,” stated Papale. “A lot of today’s athletes are very active and it’s a beautiful thing because there’s nothing greater than seeing a smile on someone’s face or hearing them say thank you because you have reached out your hand and have helped them.”
Vince’s high school coach and mentor told him; “Happy are those who dream dreams and are willing to pay the price to make their dreams come true.” When he was trying to make the Eagles, he had many people trying to put him down and telling him that he would never do it. He blocked out all of those negative thoughts and focused on the positive. He focused on the words that his high school coach instilled in him. Now, he’s using the words that motivated him to help motivate others who have been put down and told they’ll never be able to do something.
“I know a little boy named Alex who has muscular dystrophy and his dream is to walk again, but he’s been told he’ll never be able to. He asked me, ’Vince, did they ever tell you wouldn’t be an Eagle?’” said Papale.”I told him ‘All the time and that they laughed at me,’ and then he said to me, ‘They pretty much laugh at me, too, but you know what, if you can be a Philadelphia Eagle then I can walk again,’ and it’s just amazing to hear this little kid have dreams that he will continue to follow until it’s a reality and there are so many remarkable people like that out there with a story to tell and it is because they never stopped dreaming,” he concluded.
He has not suited up for the Philadelphia Eagles in over 30 years, yet Vince Papale continues to be one of the most influential figures in Philadelphia and the sports world. He continues to make an impact in the community years after his retirement and he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. He was told he wouldn’t make the Eagles. He did it. He was diagnosed with cancer. He beat it. He will continue to fight everyday for what he believes in and he won’t stop until he can get his message and story out to everyone. Dreams can become a reality, it all depends on how hard you’re going to fight to make that possible.
To learn more about Vince Papale and everything that he does, visit http://vincepapale.com/
To learn more about Eagles Fly for Leukemia, visit http://www.eaglesfly.org/index.html