By Joseph Santoliquito

PENNSAUKEN TOWNSHIP, NJ (CBS) — Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier has a tradition the first week of every season. For his team’s pregame cafeteria dinner, Cormier asks the fathers of each senior to present a speech why they are proud of their sons.

This year, each father following the tradition got up one-by-one and read aloud to their boys, wearing their jerseys, as if they were the only ones in the packed room.

Vince Papale didn’t need a script to talk about his son Vinny Papale. The former Eagle and focus of the movie “Invincible” knew Vinny’s arduous path, how he grew out of his dad’s considerable shadow, how he’s turned out to be a far better football player than he was at the same age, and how much of a gift Vinny has been in his life, nearly dying as a baby.

It didn’t take long for the father to break down emotionally and for father and son to embrace.

Some fathers are reluctant to openly tell their sons how pleased they are with them. Vince tells Vinny almost every day.

There’s a lot Vinny has done to shed the shadow of his father, a local Philadelphia football legend who made Dick Vermiel’s Eagles in the mid-1970s and was the subject of “Invincible,” the 2006 film that starred Mark Wahlberg.

Vinny, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior receiver/defensive back, is one of South Jersey’s best players. Entering last weekend, he held the Eustace all-time record for receptions with 56, for 859 yards and nine touchdowns. He also has 404 yards in kickoff returns and as a defensive back has made 58 tackles, deflected 15 passes, forced five fumbles and has five interceptions.

Vince, who starred at Interboro High (Glenolden, Pa.) in the late 1960s and ran track for St. Joseph’s in college, will be the first to tell you he was nothing in comparison to his son when he was a high school senior.

Then Vince will catch himself. A pang or emotion will bolt through him for a moment, because he almost lost Vinny. He was born with pneumonia and a hole in his heart. Vinny was considered a “blue baby,” which is what happens to newborns that have cyanotic heart defects.

The first 48 hours of Vinny’s life was spent in an oxygen tent gulping air like a guppy out of water. Vinny also had an ear problem which affected his walking. Consequently, Vinny’s equilibrium was off, forcing him to crawl everywhere. He didn’t walk until he was around 2 years old, when tubes were placed in his ears to solve the problem.

Vince still remembers those times, which gives him a great appreciation now each time he sees Vinny on the field. So it’s not just the heavy Papale name Vinny has carried well, it’s a fighter’s heart that may even exceed his old man’s wrought-iron will.

“There were a lot of things about Vinny that I thought were important that his classmates should know,” Vince said about the speech he made to Vinny. “My wife [Janet Cantwell] was a great athlete, my parents were great athletes. But the movie put some spokes in the wheel, because people may have felt Vinny was given preferential treatment because his old man had a movie made up about him. It’s so far from the truth. If anything, Vinny’s had to work harder to develop his own identity. It hasn’t been easy for him, but finally, he’s gotten it. His teammates needed to know Vinny has been under pressure since birth.

“I’m proud of him, because of everything he’s been through. Not everyone knows that. The other thing is 13, 14 years ago, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, and there was a period of time that I kept looking at Vinny wondering if I would ever see my son achieve his dreams and goals, and if I’d ever see him play football. That all came to fruition. I’m just in awe of him. I tell him when I grow up, I want to be just like him, because he’s everything that I wasn’t when I was 17. Vinny has it and he handles it well.”

Vince stayed in the wings when Vinny began playing football in high school. The Bishop Eustace program wanted Vince to be a part of the coaching staff, but Vince backed off, not wanting to put any more undue glare on Vinny. Only after he got permission from Vinny did Vince join the coaching staff in his son’s junior year.

“Vinny was better than me as a sophomore than I was as a senior,” Vince said. “Vinny is the athlete in the family.”

Vinny carries a 3.7 GPA at Eustace, a very academically demanding school. He’s getting attention from a number of FCS schools as a wide receiver, though he could be a Division I defensive back, with his rare blend of size and speed. Cormier harkens back to Vinny’s dad, only a faster, larger version.

What Vinny can’t ignore is the same fight his father had that has been imbued in him.

“I didn’t realize everything that happened to me as a baby until I was told when I was 11 or 12 years old,” said Vinny, a standout lacrosse player who also owns the school record for points in a season, and who played a role in “Invincible” as the kid with the No. 83 taped on his back, catching a pass from his sister, Gabriella. “Before the movie, I didn’t know that much about my dad. I knew he played in the NFL, but I didn’t know the full story.

“I began wearing No. 83 when I first began playing because of my dad, and then I began wearing the number because my favorite player is Wes Welker. Now I wear No. 13. I just wanted some separation from my dad. I had to deal with some stuff in middle school when the movie came out about my dad. It was always ‘You’re Vince Papale’s son.’ That bothered me a little. It doesn’t so much now. You know, I’m happy being a Papale. I have good blood running through me. I realize how blessed I am.”

 

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