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Vince Papale - Almost Invincible

by Laura Shipp

Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale

Invincible is the title of the movie based on his life, but in 2002, former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale learned that he is not invulnerable to colon cancer.

His is the story that dreams (and movies) are made of. In 1976, at the age of 30, Vince Papale, a former middle school business education teacher, attended an open tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles. He had no NFL experience and had run track, not played football, in college. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, Vince made the team and became the oldest rookie in NFL history.

Thirty years later, Walt Disney Pictures took Vince's triumphant underdog story and turned it into the inspiring sports drama Invincible. Audiences fell in love with the down-on-his-luck teacher and part-time bartender who lives every fan?s fantasy of moving from his cheap seats in the upper deck to standing on the field as a professional football player. As the movie suggests, nothing can stop Vince Papale. But in 2002, a colon cancer diagnosis threatened to do just that.

“When I heard I had cancer, it was the hardest hit I've ever taken in my life. It just sucked the wind out of me,” Vince reveals in an interview with Coping® magazine. “I was devastated for about 48 hours. I was just crying all the time because I thought that I was going to die.”

“It was the hardest hit I’ve ever taken in my life.
It just sucked the wind out of me.”

Vince meets Mark Wahlberg, the actor who portrayed him in Disney?s Invincible.

Vince credits his wife, Janet, for pulling him out of his depression and showing him that he could beat this disease. “To me, she's an invincible woman,” he says. “Everything really good that's happened in my life in the last 15 years has happened because of her. She was with me the whole time, making sure that we got all the right answers, that we got the proper care. She was the best advocate anybody could possibly have. And I couldn't have done it without her.”

Janet was also the one who had insisted that Vince have a colonoscopy … an insistence that may have saved his life. Doctors found a cancerous polyp and successfully removed it, along with a section of his colon. On beating cancer, Vince says, “People are making such a big deal of it, and I never really thought that I did anything special. It was like when I made the team back in 1976. It just was something that was given to me.” Now, Vince is cancer-free and enjoying what he calls “a rebirth, a second chance at life.”

“All of those little things that used to bother me and the things that used to stress me, aren't quite the stressors that they used to be,” he says. “I've always had a zest for life, but now it's more than just a zest. It's a hunger for things that are new and experimental. I have this thirst for learning. I want to learn as much as I can, and I look at my children and I want to teach them as much as I can.”

He insists that he has a lot to be grateful for: surviving cancer, having his life story portrayed on the big screen, and most important, his family. As our conversation ends, Vince relates his excitement about picking up his kids that afternoon. Because of his travel schedule, he hasn't seen them in four days. “On a scale from one to ten, I'm having a 15 day,” he says. “After what I went through six years ago, I'll take every day that I can get. And I relish them.”

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For more on Vince Papale, visit www.vincepapale.com.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2008.