In 1976, Vince Papale was thirty, a former schoolteacher and part-time bartender, and a season ticket holder for his beloved Philadelphia Eagles, one of the worst teams in the NFL. But there was hope. The Eagles had just hired a charismatic, Rose Bowl winning coach from UCLA named Dick Vermeil.
During one of his first press conferences in Philly, Vermeil announced that he was changing the culture on his new team, and he began by holding open tryouts. After all, he reasoned, how much worse could guys just off the street be than the losing team he already had?
Papale had played just one year of high school football in the Philly suburbs before becoming a track star at St. Joseph’s. But the closest he ever came to playing on Sundays was after college, in rough touch leagues whose teams were sponsored by local bars. When he heard Vermeil was inviting all comers to tryout, he decided to take a chance. During that first practice he shocked the coaches, and himself, by running a 4.5 forty-yard dash, a world-class time. He was offered a contract on the spot. Papale became the oldest non-kicking rookie in NFL history, a fan favorite so respected by his teammates he was voted an Eagles captain. Years later, Vermeil credited Papale’s heart for helping turn the Eagles from league joke into a Super Bowl team.