A Soft Spot for the Aging Jock

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It's Rocky with shoulder pads — almost shamelessly so. The story line is similar: A working-class loser (in this case a part-time bartender and substitute school teacher) takes a shot at athletic glory and, after overcoming long odds and heavy obstacles, achieves success in his chosen sport. Perhaps more to the point, the setting is exactly the same: We are once again in Philadelphia and the grimy streets — or are they, perhaps, the stations of the cross? — through which Vince Papale runs every day in order to condition himself, bear an inescapable resemblance to the ones Rocky Balboa chugged through in search of his improbable apotheosis. OK, Vince doesn't end his daily ordeal on the steps of the local art museum and what he gets for his troubles is not a shot at the heavyweight championship, but three seasons as a more or less anonymous defensive specialist with the Philadelphia Eagles, but the idea is the same. An unlikely "triumph of the human spirit," as some benighted reviewer is surely gearing up to call it as we speak.

The other big difference between Invincible and Rocky is that the former purports to be a "true" story, while the latter was only suggested by the real-life career of a gallant, possibly misguided, pug known to the sports pages as "the Bayonne Bleeder." There really was (and is) a guy named Vince Papale, and he really did make the team in 1976, at age 30, having played just one year of high school football, plus a lot of pickup games in empty lots. He is impersonated here, quite appealingly, by Mark Wahlberg. There also really was (and is) a football coach named Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) who came out of a college career to coach the then downtrodden Eagles and, as a gimmick designed mostly to hearten their discouraged, if ever raucous, blue collar fans, held open the open tryout at which Papale was discovered.

What's modestly refreshing about the way this story is told by director Eric Core and writer Brad Gann is that the person with the largest doubts about going pro is Papale himself. Most of the guys down at the bar are all for him, and though his father warns him against getting his hopes u — a man can only endure so much failure, he tells him — he soon enough sees what his son's success could mean to the guys down at the plant (who are, of course, on strike).

Papale understands that, too. He also understands how appealing the new female barkeep (Elizabeth Banks) is — the hesitant romance of these two recently hurt people is very nicely managed in the film. But Papale also knows what his fans can only dimly imagine, which is just how big and fast and hard-hitting professional football players are, and he can't afford distractions. All he has to throw at the big guys — who do not exactly welcome him to their locker room — is heart: the ability to recover from their hits and keep on charging down the field. He spends a lot of time stoically awaiting "The Turk," the assistant coach who visits the players training camp rooms to summon them to the head coach's office for their dismissal. Happily, for him, doom does not come a-knocking at his door. As the movie would have it, Vermeil resists everyone's advice and opts for Papale's spirit over the perhaps greater skills of another player, and Vince makes the team, hanging on to the lower edges of the roster for three seasons. It is not much, but it is something.

Something that is, from the outset, predictable. They don't make movies about athletes who utterly fail. On the other hand, the movie does not make too much of Papale's achievement. It indicates that he married the pretty girl and has gone on to a pleasant and useful life. It also inferentially suggests that all of us have a certain amount of untapped potential within us which, mobilized by true grit and unshakable gumption, can carry us at least a bit further than we might imagine.

Movie reviewers are not supposed to like films of this kind. They are inherently corny. And however realistically they're shot, they are generally regarded as bad for us, encouraging false dreams of hope, even of glory. I agree — in theory. And as sports become an ever more smoothly functioning and soulless corporate machine I doubt that a modern-day Dick Vermeil would try to energize his team's fan base with an open tryout. Even at the time he was criticized for it. But...

Sports remain, particularly for American males, our dominant social metaphor. Our lives are guided, more than we dare admit, by the hope of winning, the fear of losing and the belief that we everywhere compete on level playing fields — even though the media almost daily instructs us that this is pure fantasy. That's why the doping scandals so outrage us and the reports of rapacious behavior by athletes so dismay us. We have a primitive need for tales about the walk-on who makes the team, the aging jock who summons the idealistic spirit of boyhood and wins our hearts. To the degree that Invincible evokes that old-time religion, to the degree that its hero's rewards are limited, it seems to me that, on the eve of a new football season, it is a modestly useful reminder of what this game — all our games — have lost. Just don't let it go to your head, rummaging through the attic in search of your old football shoes. They probably won't fit anymore. And if they do, they're more likely to carry you on to an ACL injury than to the Pro Bowl.