UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Vince Papale, Invincible

An Interview with Vince Papale, the Inspiration for Disney's Invincible

There's remarkable symmetry in the life of Vince Papale. In 1976, Papale made the improbable leap from bartender to professional football player, becoming the oldest rookie in NFL history at age 30 when he joined the Philadelphia Eagles through an open tryout. Exactly thirty years later, Papale's underdog story became a movie: Walt Disney Pictures' warmly-received drama Invincible.

Having played just a single year of football in high school and not at all in college, Papale's story seems too amazing to be true. It is all the more inspiring when one learns that his unlikely triumph overcame the end of his first marriage, the loss of a substitute teaching job,
and general financial hardship experienced by the working class of South Philadelphia to which he belonged.

After three seasons in the NFL, during which he was named the Eagles' Special Teams Captain, Papale became a broadcaster in radio and television. From there, he's moved into commercial mortgage banking and today, he is a Marketing Executive and Special Projects Director for Sallie Mae, the United States' largest college student loan company.

This week, Invincible came to DVD and to promote the release, Papale spoke to UltimateDisney.com. Among the topics discussed: the movie's creation, collaborating with his portrayer Mark Wahlberg, the thrill of having your life made into a movie, Invincible's rock music soundtrack, his ongoing thirty-year connection to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky character, and the Eagles' chances this season. We even got to ask him something that no one else has ever inquired about.


UltimateDisney.com: How did Invincible come to be?

Vince Papale: Four years ago, the NFL wanted to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Rocky. As you know the story, I'm the 30-year-old walk-on who didn't play college football, Rocky was the 30-year-old ham and egger. And they decided to do this parallel piece and I was the guy they did the piece on. It was shown on November 25th, 2002 on "Monday Night Football" and November 26th, I started receiving calls from Hollywood. One thing led to another, a spec script was written, and Disney bought the script October 6th, '04. They greenlit it about five or six months after that, and we came out in August. Ran number one for two weeks in a row.

Vince Papale today at age 60, as seen in the "Invincible" DVD's making-of featurette. Papale gets suited up in his playing days. He can be seen wearing a slightly modified version of the "Who's Nuts" shirt in footage from today.

Did you have any hesitations going into the movie, perhaps that your story would be glamorized for Hollywood?

No, why should you have any hesitations? You're never gonna do anything in life unless you take risks, unless you believe in yourself. I have the best partner in the world, I have my wife here. When we were approached by those producers back in November of '02, there was no doubt in our minds that what we had here was a Hollywood movie. It was just about who was going to do and how we were gonna get it done. And we spent an awful lot of money out of our pocket to get it done. We took that risk, as well. So... I don't have any regrets about what I'm getting in return now that the thing has been so successful.

We were told, just like I was told back in '76, that I'll never make the Eagles because I was 30, "It's never been done before", "You didn't play college football", and all that stuff. We had those [same kind of] doubters with this movie. You know what, the chance of this happening is like a million to one. But you know what, I made the Eagles and the chances were TEN million to one. So these odds were much better. We finally found the right people, who believed like we believed, in [producers] Ken Mok, Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, the guys who did The Rookie and Miracle. They saw this thing, loved it. When it was presented to Disney, [producer] Brad Epstein passed on the script to a guy who was from Philadelphia, he remembered the story, remembered me, and then he passes it back up, and then [Epstein] takes it to Nina [Jacobsen, then President of Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group]. It just happened that fast. That's some of the processes that went on. Once we got the notes, and we heard that Nina Jacobsen had written personal notes on that thing, we were convinced we had a winner.

The real-life Rocky is happy to have realized a dream on the field and once again for modern movie audiences. As the Eagles' rookie coach Dick Vermeil (formerly of UCLA), Greg Kinnear meets with Mark Wahlberg (playing Vince Papale) in Disney's "Invincible."

Disney has made a lot of true sports dramas in recent years, like Miracle, Remember the Titans, and The Rookie. For many people, Invincible is considered part of a distinct class. Are you a fan of those films and are you proud to be part of this tradition?

Oh, absolutely. Oh my God. They're my favorites. I have all those DVDs. That's the amazing thing. These movies that you just spoke about. Like my favorite movie is Miracle, it went ahead of Rocky. Rocky's always been one of my favorites and that wasn't a Disney movie. With The Titans, and Rookie, they're three of my favorite movies. Just the other day, we were doing some stuff in our house and I hadn't gotten my copy of Invincible yet.
So I threw Miracle on and we're watching Miracle as we're doing some stuff around the house. To be mentioned in the same breath with those movies, to me, it's an honor. And now, we've superseded some of them and it's just amazing what's going on with me and with the story itself. It's just absolutely mind-boggling.

How closely did you work with Mark Wahlberg on the film?

Very closely! We first met each other up in New York, we established a relationship. He trained for two weeks at the local high school with all the other professional athletes who did the football scenes in the movie. Mark trained with them and I was on that training field everyday. He had a personal coach -- his name was Jim Jensen, he played for the Miami Dolphins. And I was working with Mark and Jensen, and then Mark spent a lot of time with me off the field. He was at my house on a couple of occasions. We went to dinner often and we just socialized. We just talked, he didn't ask questions. We just talked. He got my South Philly accent, as they say I have, he got that down very well. And he got me down too. That's the important thing. I'm pretty intense when I'm up on stage, I'm pretty intense when I'm on the field, but I'm pretty low-key in other respects. I think he got that right combination, that right blend.

Mark is absolutely the man. There could have been nobody else after I've seen Mark do the performance he did. He was phenomenal.

The real Vince Papale stands next to the pretend Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) on the sidelines of "Invincible." Papale is all smiles watching his story told on the set of "Invincible."

In the DVD's featurette, you seem extremely happy while making the movie. Was it really as much fun as it looked to have your life turned into a film?

Oh my God, it was great! Are you kidding? It was insane. Everyday was a party for me. I was entertaining friends, just hanging out, watching it all unfold in front of you. A lot of the scenes were so intense, the scenes with me and my father.
I had to actually leave the set -- they were so emotional to me. And then when I see them in the movie and see them on the DVD, forget about it. It blows me away.

Were you on the set everyday then?

I was on the set everyday, except for two weeks when it got so intense, that it was just consuming us. It was consuming my wife, myself, my kids, everybody. So we decided, we left the country, where we couldn't get to a phone and nobody could reach us. And then we came back and just picked right back up again. We had a tremendous time -- especially, Disney took my whole family out to Dallas, where we shot the Dallas Cowboys scene. We spent a week out there. And it was filmed at the perfect time, where our kids could be a part of everything because they were not in school.

Does the movie take many liberties with the facts and is there anything that you would have changed about it?

Uh, does it take any liberties? Nah, you know what? Of course it takes liberties because it's not a documentary, you know. And it has to be entertaining. You have to move it along, you know? You have to compress timelines and those kinds of things. No, there's nothing I would have changed. If anything, I maybe would have stretched it out a little bit longer. I know there are a couple of scenes that were dropped. I haven't seen the DVD yet. Maybe I wish they were put in there, but it's nothing that changed the substance of the movie. That's the important thing. I would have just left it alone. It seems like the fans were happy with it. But that's the biggest -- I wouldn't say complaint -- but everybody says "We wanted it to go longer. We wanted to see what happened with you and your wife." Maybe it just sets it up for a sequel. Maybe there'll be an Invincible 2 (laughs).

There's a lot of period music in the movie. Do you have a favorite song from your playing days that made it into the film?

No, uh, Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" was one of them. No, I was more of a Santana guy. Santana was '60s music. And I was listening to '60s music. But that [Invincible] soundtrack is just great. I have it in all the cars. And we're always rockin' to it. It's fun, I was with my son the other day, he's 10, and he's got his other buddies. And I put the soundtrack on, and these guys were singing verbatim, word for word, every song that was in the soundtrack. Which I thought was cool for a bunch of ten-year-olds. So it takes them back a period. But that soundtrack is so great. Who'd think that I'd have a soundtrack with Rod Stewart's music in it - I mean, how good is that? And Jim Croce, that first song "I Have a Name", as soon as I hear that... The first time I saw the movie, it had the Disney logo, you saw the castle, and then you see the Walt Disney fireworks and Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" coming on. That just tore me up, completely. Understand, man? This is the real thing. It don't get any better than this.

Parallels have been drawn between Vince Papale and Rocky since 1976, when both Philadelphia underdogs were introduced to the world. They continue today, with Papale's story coming to DVD the day before the new movie "Rocky Balboa" opened in theaters.

In your first season with the Eagles, the movie Rocky came out about a working-class, Italian-American underdog in Philadelphia. Now, thirty years later, your story is told, and today, the day after your movie comes to DVD, there is a new Rocky movie. Is this just a bizarre coincidence?

How 'bout that? Isn't that amazing or what? Yeah, I was talking on TV, I was on Comcast yesterday and we were talking about that whole thing. Rocky actually came out after I did what I did. And Rocky didn't come from a working class family. We have no idea where Rocky came from, you know? Rocky was a punk on the street. I'm not saying that as a character. He was an enforcer on the street. So, the parallels were -- there were these two 30-year-old guys, they were looking to validate themselves as athletes, to validate themselves as people. So that's where that parallel there was. But, thirty years later, to have the Philadelphia premiere [of Rocky Balboa] the night before the [Invincible] DVD's coming out in Philadelphia... it's scary. If anything, it helped accelerate the interest that we had with Invincible, because everybody here in Philadelphia and everywhere I go, people say "You're the real-life Rocky." Whether it is or it isn't. But that's the tag that's been given to me. So, I'll accept it.

Who are your heroes?

Who are my heroes? Lance Armstrong is a hero of mine. My wife is my hero, for what she overcame to qualify for the Olympic tryouts back in '72 for gymnastics. Who else? Mark Wahlberg's my hero. I know where he came from, I know what he overcame to get to where to he got. Anybody who overcame cancer, they're heroes of mine. Anybody who overcame tremendous adversity, they're heroes of mine. That's why I put Lance Armstrong right at the top of that list, along with my wife.

Vince Papale poses with his wife Janet and two kids in a photo seen in the DVD's featurette "Becoming Invincible." Elizabeth Banks plays a largely fictionalized version of Janet Cantwell in "Invincible."

Do you have a favorite football movie of a sports movie that you were hoping your story could aspire to?

Well, my favorite sports story was Miracle. [I wanted] to aspire to that on a different level, because [Invincible] is more about an individual than it is about a team. But my favorite sports movie prior to Miracle was probably Radio, because it reminded me so much of my high school coach, who stood for values and everything deserving of equal opportunity. If I was to aspire to that same level, I would have been extremely ecstatic. And I think it has.

I've read that the Disney TV movie
Tony Danza starred in "The Garbage Picking, Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon", a 1998 Wonderful World of Disney telemovie that may or may not have been loosely inspired by Vince Papale.
The Garbage Picking, Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon starring Tony Danza was inspired by your career. Is there any truth to that?

Really? You know what, I don't know that. I never saw the movie, actually. I couldn't even comment on it. If that's true, I'm honored (laughs) and flattered. But I've never heard that. I've actually heard some people say that maybe there's a little bit of me in Rocky, but not with the Tony Danza film. I couldn't comment on that with any reasonable intelligence and I've never heard it. (Laughs) Good question, though. The first time I've been asked that and I've been asked a lot of questions many times, but never that one.

How do you think this season is going to end up for the Eagles?

Oh, I think we're gonna rock the table. This is so much fun. This is great to watch the team, responding as a team, and it's fun to see all this excitement and this boyish enthusiasm on this team. There's no controversy now. And what a way to end the season. What a way to go into the holidays. And we're real excited, because there's gonna be a big Vince Papale Day with the City of Philadelphia, the final game of the season. Which might be the game that could propel the Eagles into the NFC Championship. You know what I'm sayin'? So, there's a lot of good things going on, not only personally, but around the city. The city's buoyed by it. And I don't see any reason why the Eagles, the way they're playing right now [with] confidence, that they can't run the table for the next two games and capture the NFC title.

Thanks a lot for talking with me.

You're welcome, Luke. My pleasure. Have a nice holiday!


Related Reviews:
Invincible (now on DVD)

Miracle (2004) The Rookie (2002) Remember the Titans: Director's Cut (2000)

Related Items:

Buy Invincible on DVD from Amazon.com Buy Invincible: Original Soundtrack on CD from Amazon.com Buy Invincible: My Journey From NFL Fan to Team Captain from Amazon.com Buy Invincible on Blu-ray Disc from Amazon.com
Invincible
DVD, Widescreen
Review
Invincible: Original Soundtrack CD
songs by Jim Croce, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rare Earth, Edgar Winter, Rod Stewart, Canned Heat, Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent and more
Invincible: My Journey From NFL Fan to Team Captain By Vince Papale with Chad Millman
Hyperion, 2006, Paperback
Also available in Hardcover
Invincible
Blu-ray, Widescreen

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Interview conducted December 20, 2006. Published December 22, 2006. All images copyright Disney.
Thanks to Vince Papale and Buena Vista Home Entertainment for granting it.

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