NEWARK, Del. — It was like out of a movie script. The Delaware Blue Hens needed a play, needed to score, really needed to win to keep the season alive. Early in Saturday's fourth quarter, an Elon defender took away Vinny Papale's initial move to the outside.
This was man-to-man chess, or maybe poker, Papale trying to get the defensive back thinking, keeping his own cards close — "make it hard for him to think where I was going, post or corner," the senior receiver said.
The answer, corner. Papale got there first. The ball arrived. The touchdown catch, a game-winner. A career's worth of toil, worth it. A dad in the stands, emotional. He saw his son later, emotional again. Invincible was a movie, made from Vince Papale's improbable life story. Sometimes, real life can match up.
"Sort of like one of those moments you dream about, you visualize," Vinny Papale said of his catch and the circumstances. "Does it happen every time? No."
It wasn't always easy being Vince Papale's son. Sure, it was great hanging out on the set of Invincible as a 9-year-old as Mark Wahlberg played his father, an Eagles special-teamer from Delaware County who had made Dick Vermeil's team despite never playing college ball. (He went to St. Joseph's. There was no college ball to play; Papale ran track for the Hawks.)
"I didn't really leave his side," Vinny Papale said of sticking by Wahlberg. "That was like my summer camp, on the set. In between takes, we'd either have a football catch, or be playing portable PlayStation. He's just a regular guy."
Then the movie came out, and to the outside world, his own father morphed from regular guy, former Eagle, to the Invincible guy. Vince worked to keep his feet on the ground. Vinny can remember his dad taking red-eye flights back from speaking engagements to see a little league game or even a practice for him or his sister.
Still, not easy to be the son. Vince knew it. Vinny acknowledges it.
"It's sort of just the name," Vinny Papale said. "Everyone always has eyes on you. Everyone's always watching. It got a little tough at times growing up. It definitely made me stronger, who I am."
He found out people could be jealous, not always wanting you to succeed, while not knowing anything about you. He was never ashamed, Vinny added. He embraced his last name, always was proud of his dad.
"He's just my dad. He's not the Invincible guy," Vinny Papale said. "He's been there for me."
Vince used the exact same words: "I'm just their dad. I'm not the Invincible guy. I'm not that guy. I'm not the guy a lot of people think I am. I'm just a guy from Glenolden."
Before the game, Papale posed for a couple of people who had stopped him for selfies in the stands, and was friendly to anyone who came by. But his focus, and his nerves, remained on the field.
"I'm undefeated wearing this hat and these sneakers," Vince said after he'd fast-walked into Delaware Stadium, leaving the family tailgate behind.
"I just got the nod from Vinny," Papale said, looking down at the field a minute later. "He kind of gave me the double nod. It's all good."
A Blue Hens teammate saw Papale in the stands and thumped his own No. 83, since that was Papale's old Eagles jersey. Another ritual.
"I just can't get enough of it," Vince Papale said, mentioning that he gets to practice when he can, which is a lot. He doesn't get too close to the field, he said, doesn't try to get involved in X's and O's, doesn't try to act like a coach, although he was an assistant at Bishop Eustace when his son played there.
"Hey Bing, how you doing, buddy?" Vince said to an old-timer walking by pregame, another practice regular.
As his son warmed up, Papale talked of his daughter Gabby's feats, from sports to cheerleader at Syracuse, now a game-day coordinator for the 76ers. He said his wife of 25 years, Janet, was the one who had the big-time sports career, missing out on the possibility of being a gymnast at the 1972 Munich Olympics when she sprained an ankle. She later coached the sport at Penn after competing at Penn State in diving.
Loaded question for Vinny: Who's the best athlete in the family?
"I might have to go with my mom," Vinny Papale said.
Dad remains a Philly folk hero, still recognizable from commercials and appearances he does in the region. But Vinny might actually lead the family in comebacks, after three straight years of season-ending injuries. Vinny had a broken collarbone as a high school senior and a broken left fibula his first year at Delaware, then tore an ACL and MCL the next year.
Saturday's game-winner wasn't his only big play. He'd helped set it up, drawing a pass-interference penalty that got Delaware down to Elon's 29-yard line, Blue Hens trailing by 16-14. If a field goal seemed possible as Delaware huddled before a third-and-4 play, Papale lined up as the inside receiver among trips, three guys out wide right.
When he caught the TD, "the electricity in the stadium — we haven't felt like this in years," MaryBeth Tribbitt said later at the Papale tailgate, after Delaware had added a late score for a 28-16 victory, improving to 4-2 overall, 2-1 in the Colonial Athletic Association.
When Vinny showed up, a cake was produced from the car and candles lit to celebrate his 22nd birthday on Wednesday, the top showing him as a Pop Warner player. Nearby tailgates joined in song. If Disney tried to script the day as a sequel, it would have been too much.
"Just to see that big smile on his face, just pure joy," Vince Papale said of his namesake. "I cried just thinking about it."
You mention the tears to the son. He already knows.
"I've learned over the years he just can't help himself," Vinny said.
By the way, the dad stays in touch with the actor who played him in the hit movie, and texted him Saturday night, forwarding a video showing the touchdown catch.
"That's so awesome," Mark Wahlberg texted back about the little guy he used to play catch with between takes.