‘I Can Play In The NFL’: Vinny Papale Steadfast As He Awaits Chance
Vinny Papale is no stranger to overcoming adversity.
In fact, that’s been the trend of his football career as of late.
Since he arrived at the University of Delaware in 2015, Papale’s path to prominence was met with a myriad of roadblocks and detours. A heralded wide receiver out of Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken, N.J., Papale battled through a stress fracture in his fibula throughout fall camp as a freshman. Playing with the injury for nearly half of his first collegiate season, Papale’s season ended prematurely after just five games.
Receiving a clean bill of health prior to his sophomore campaign, Papale, who surged up the Blue Hens’ depth chart to earn a starting role at wide receiver, would soon receive more devastating news. In a Week 6 bout against William & Mary, the receiver suffered tears to his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and was once again lost for the season.
He compiled three receptions for 42 yards and returned three punts for 17 yards on the year.
Though he was beginning to make encouraging strides before the debilitating knee injury, Papale’s return from the arduous rehab process was further compounded by the arrival of new head coach Danny Rocco. Essentially having to re-establish himself, Papale worked tirelessly to earn his place on the new depth chart, appearing in all 11 games as a junior. The ascending pass-catcher finished the season with 15 receptions for 178 yards.
By the time his senior season came into focus, Papale evolved into a mainstay on Delaware’s offense. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound wide receiver turned in a career year, hauling in 36 receptions for 618 yards and six touchdowns. Papale’s first — and only — 100-yard receiving effort in his collegiate career came in an eight-catch, 142-yard, two-touchdown performance against Towson.
When Papale learned that his name was omitted from the NFL Scouting Combine invite list in the weeks that followed, the NFL hopeful focused his attention on preparing for Delaware’s Pro Day, where he trained at XPE Sports in Boca Raton, FL, with renowned speed guru Tony Villani.
Despite a college career that was largely derailed by injuries and setbacks, when Papale arrived at the Delaware Field House on the dreary March morning, his childhood dream of playing in the NFL was finally within reach. Abiding by the message imparted throughout his favorite quote, Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘The Man in the Arena’, Papale entered the field house and was prepared to leave it all on the field.
The stage was set for Papale to shine in perhaps the most critical interview of his life – but recent history suggested that adversity was imminent.
“I actually had a sports hernia the whole time training and leading up to it,” Papale said. “So, for me to go out there and do what I did was pretty impressive, in my eyes.”
Despite the minimal feedback he received from NFL teams following his workout, Papale still had one more opportunity left on the draft docket to leave a lasting impression on NFL brass: the Philadelphia Eagles local Pro Day. Adding to the significance of Papale’s workout was the fact that his father, Vince Papale, defied insurmountable odds to make the Eagles as a 30-year-old rookie in 1976 following a successful tryout.
“I think I performed really well,” Papale said. “It was mainly just some receiver-individual drills and running routes on air, but I think I did everything I needed to do there to show them that I could play.”
Following along with the NFL Draft at home with his family in Cherry Hill, N.J., Papale tempered his expectations, and while he didn’t hear his name called on draft weekend, the opportunity that he longed for soon materialized.
“I sort of understood that I wasn’t going to get drafted,” Papale admitted. “But I was optimistic that I would be a free-agent signing, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. I was hoping to get signed right after the draft, then I ended up having to go to rookie mini-camp, which is sort of an uphill battle. I didn’t think going into draft day that I was going to get drafted, I sort of accepted that. I just wanted an opportunity.”
About an hour after the draft concluded, Papale received word that he was heading to Oakland to take part in the Raiders’ rookie mini-camp. Teams typically only sign one or two players among the 30-plus hopefuls. Papale, still dealing with a sports hernia, acquitted himself well in the two-day tryout, but left Oakland without a contract.
Papale then received an invite to attend the Washington Redskins’ rookie mini-camp, where he again showcased his route-running and reliable hands, only to leave the Inova Sports Performance Center unsigned.
“I did really well at both,” Papale said. “I got on both of their short lists. I just got to a point where the injury couldn’t go anymore. I had to get surgery.”
Opting to undergo surgery in June, in the event that a team considered bringing him in during training camp or early in the season, Papale was cleared for football activity after five weeks.
Then, in a strange twist of fate, his phone never rang. For the first time since he was five years old, Papale was faced with the possibility of life without football.
As the 2019 NFL season approached, Papale migrated down south to his parents’ home in Jupiter, Fla. Getting back to basics, he made the hour-long commute to XPE Sports to train with Villani six days a week.
Papale, along with a few other free agents, would partake in the regimented schedule that began at 8:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday throughout the fall, but it was a particular veteran defender that Papale credits for helping him develop his game.
“Marcus Gilchrist was one of the guys I was working with pretty closely,” Papale said. “Me and him would go at each other, doing shadow 1-on-1s, and it was pretty cool going against someone who’s been in the league eight years. I definitely think I’m a better receiver having worked with him.”
Nearly a full calendar year since he showcased his ability to next-level evaluators at Delaware’s Pro Day, Papale now has the option to take part in the events as a free agent. While he had his sights set on participating in Pro Day’s held at Rutgers, Temple, and Delaware this month, all have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe. There have been no new dates announced at this time.
As draft day rapidly approaches, adverse situations such as this would ordinarily spell doom for players on the fringe like Papale, a free agent far from guaranteed another opportunity to fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the NFL. The Cherry Hill native, however, remains unflappable in the face of adversity.
“I know that I can play in the NFL,” Papale said. “Someday, if I stick with it, I think I’ll have that chance. It doesn’t always go as planned, and it’s not going as planned right now, but that’s part of it. I’m ready to go wherever and do whatever to get back on a football field.”
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.
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