Former NFL star Papale: ‘Anyone can overcome anything’

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Former NFL player Vince Papale, whose life story was told in this year’s hit movie Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg, was the guest of honor Friday, Oct. 27, at the American Lung Association’s 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Dinner. The event was held at Cliffbreakers.

Papale, who used archived NFL video footage to complement his presentation, spoke of his triumphant rise from schoolteacher and bartender to cracking the roster of the 1976 Philadelphia Eagles. At age 30, Papale became the oldest rookie in league history without college football experience, a record that still stands today. From 1976 to 1978, Papale appeared in 41 regular-season games as a wide receiver and special teams player, during which time he was voted a team captain and received the Eagles’ “Man of the Year” award in 1978 for his charitable contributions.

According to Papale, his childhood in Philadelphia was anything but glamorous. His rise to success was a surprise to many people, who often told him he wasn’t good enough.

“When I grew up, we were poor, but we didn’t really know how poor we were,” Papale said. “And I was told that I wasn’t big enough or good enough to succeed.”

He also said that, although he was the American Lung Association’s guest of honor, he was not the true focus of the event, and repeatedly conveyed that message throughout his evening.

Papale added: “I am honored to be here. I truly am, but this is about the [American Lung] Association. It’s about what it is doing to give people the chance to breathe—the chance to live—just like the opportunities that were given to me.”

When Papale was a child, health problems began plaguing his family, often finding it on the verge of bankruptcy. The former college track standout spoke candidly about his mother’s bout with asthma and mental illness, and credited hard work and influence by a high school teacher to his success.

“I have had many people in my life that I can say helped me, but it was a friendship that continues to this day with one teacher, that showed me that anyone can overcome anything that life throws at you,” he said. “That’s what this event is all about, and the message I am going to convey here.”

Papale is also a cancer survivor.

As a child, Papale’s dream was to attend college; however, while his father juggled mounting medical bills, the dream of paying for tuition turned fruitless. A determined Papale then turned to sports and earned a full scholarship to run track at St. Joseph’s College (now St. Joseph’s University), where he became a standout pole vaulter and graduated with a degree in marketing.

Shortly after he took a job teaching at his alma mater, Interboro High School, Papale played two seasons with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League, until the team folded in 1975. His stint with the Bell prompted him to attend an open tryout with the Eagles, after head coach Dick Vermeil became highly dissatisfied with the performance of the current squad. His initial tryout, which included an impressive 40-yard dash time, resulted in a private workout and, ultimately, a spot on the team’s roster.

After an injury ended his career in 1979, Papale spent eight years as a sports announcer before enjoying a career as mortgage banker. Today, in addition to his public speaking career, he’s also a marketing executive for Sallie Mae.

Other highlights of the evening’s events were a silent auction and raffle, which included a $1,000 grand prize, vacation packages, and autographed memorabilia from rock band Cheap Trick. Proceeds went to promote asthma research and education.

The Rockford Chapter of the American Lung Association is at 1330 E. State St. It can be contacted at 962-6412. Information about the organization can also be found on the Web at

From the Nov. 1-7, 2006, issue

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