Hens’ Papale has been invincible in his own way

Vinny Papale snared this touchdown pass with 30 seconds left to give Delaware a 40-36
win over No. 10 Towson. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — To Philadelphia Eagles’ fans, they’re two of the most well-known men in the franchise’s history.

But to Vinny Papale, Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski are just a couple of his dad’s old friends.

So while Papale was honored to have them at his senior game on Saturday, there was nothing unusual about it for the Delaware receiver.

“I see them all the time so I look at them different,” said Papale. “When I see them, I guess it’s just sort of normal. I’ll talk to them after the game and you have all these people coming up to them asking for pictures and stuff.”

It’s just part of life for Papale, whose father, Vince, was the Eagles’ overachieving receiver who had a feature movie (“Invincible”) made about his story.

Unfortunately for the younger Papale, he’s needed a lot of his dad’s grit and determination to get through his career with the Blue Hens (7-4), who play at James Madison (8-3) on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA FCS Division I football playoffs.

Senior receiver Vinny Papale tries to get his Delaware teammates fired up before a game this season. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

For Papale, a broken leg as a freshman was followed by a blown-out knee as a sophomore. It’s only really now, in his senior season, that he’s been able to have a productive fall.

“Vinny, he has a very special story if you know anything about him as a person and as a player,” said senior safety Malcolm Brown. “He’s gone through a lot here but he’s emerged as one of the best receivers in this conference.

“He’s very difficult to stop. He makes every contested catch. He’s one of the most consistent guys that I’ve ever seen. I love watching him play every week. He’s a guy you know you can count on and those are the best guys to have on your team.”

Between the Hens’ struggling passing game and his injuries, Papale managed just 19 catches for 248 yards with no touchdowns in his first three seasons.

From left, former Philadelphia Eagles Vince Papale, Ron Jaworski and Dick Vermeil
pose for a picture before the Hens’ game with Villanova last Saturday. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Papale, though, has far surpassed those numbers in just this one season: 33 receptions for 574 yards with six TDs. It was Papale who snared a three-yard touchdown pass from Pat Kehoe with just 30 seconds left to give Delaware a dramatic, 40-36 comeback win over No. 10 Towson on Oct. 27.

But Papale probably couldn’t have imagined any of that success just a few years ago.

He admits that dealing with his injuries left him in a pretty dark place halfway through his college career.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Papale. “But I didn’t feel like I was the football player that I thought I had the potential of being — what I had envisioned. I definitely was down in the dumps.”

As a sophomore, Papale tore both the ACL and MCL in one of his knees in a loss at William & Mary on Oct. 16. The next day, Delaware fired head coach Dave Brock.

Now Papale really wondered what would happen next. He had to prove himself to a new coaching staff while he was also recovering from a serious injury.

Papale remembers the first one-on-one meeting he had with new coach Danny Rocco. It turned around his career.

“I was like ‘Coach, I know my ability, I know what I can do,’” Papale recalls. “He said, ‘I know you can, too.’ He believed in me from the very beginning. It just sort of gave me that life again — especially when I was down in the dumps for two years.

“Just to have someone finally believe in me, like I believed in myself … Just what he’s done these past two years, what he’s given me alone and everyone else on this team — the joy that he’s given us, and the things that he’s taught us, it’s just something I can never really repay him for.”

Papale’s comeback didn’t happen overnight, of course.

After the surgery, “you basically are breaking in a new knee,” he said.

Papale began last season wearing a knee brace, which he finally discarded because it made him uncomfortable. Papale started only once, in the ninth game of the season.

This year, Papale has started all 11 games and he’s had at least one reception in every contest. And that winning TD catch against Towson capped off a day in which Papale pulled in a career-high eight receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

It’s the kind of season he also thought he could have.

“I’ve known all along what I could bring to the table — the ability that I have,” said Papale. “Just to see everything unfold this year the way it has … it’s sort of hard to describe. Having the season that I’m having, it’s definitely fun.

“It feels that everything that happened in the past was worth it almost.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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