Editor's note: This piece was originally posted by Page 2 on Aug. 31, 2005
At first, I figured I had to be in the wrong place -- again.
For a story in the NFL preview of The Mag, I was told to report to Northeast High in Philadelphia, where I would be working as a football extra on the upcoming Disney flick, "Invincible," based on the career of former Eagles special teams wacko Vince Papale. And, silly me, I was expecting the full Hollywood experience: craft services, production assistants, my own personal trailer.
Instead, my dressing room consisted of a cinderblock closet, a trash-picked couch, a rusted-out fuse box and a faucet that warned "Do NOT drink from sink." I was about to turn around and leave when I heard a toilet flush and the bathroom door slam open. It was Mark Wahlberg, the star of the film, tucking in his football jersey and refolding a newspaper.
Ah yes, I thought, the glamour of Hollywood.
"Who's ready for some football?" he laughed.
Me, it turns out.
In 1976, Papale was a 30-year-old South Philly bartender and school teacher with minimal football experience. When a frustrated Dick Vermeil held an open tryout to infuse his listless 4-10 Eagles with some heart and guts, Papale made the team, played four years and was a special-teams captain. To this day, Vermeil still credits him with creating the underdog 'tude that propelled the Birds to Super Bowl XV.
Getting into character for my part as an Eagle was easy: I just had my family boo me as I left my house for rehearsal. Once Wahlberg convinced me I was in the right place, the rest of the day was a blast. The costume guys outfitted me in authentic 1970s football equipment. Then Mark Ellis, president of ReelSports Solutions, the company running the camp (and the folks behind the game action in films like "Miracle" and "The Longest Yard"), ran us all through a pre-practice film study session. And five hours, four concussions and 300 feet of athletic tape (you'll see) later, my time in La-La Land was over.
"You're ready, man," said Kevin Ingram of the Arena Football League when it was over.
"For pro football?" I said.
|With Papale looking on, ReelSports prez Mark Ellis points out for me exactly where my career went into the toilet. Ellis is a former college wideout who fancies himself more Gruden than Grazer. During his pre-practice locker room speech, he implored us to "set the tempo and the tone for this movie with attention to detail and desire." Normally, this would have really hit home for me, but I was too busy watching three cockroaches, big enough to pull a chuckwagon, slither out of my shoulder pads.|
|Here I demonstrate on Arena League Ironman Kevin Ingram what is known as "textbook technique" -- wide stance, low hips, legs driving, arms wrapped and plenty of dental coverage. Ingram served as my tour guide, chaperon and bodyguard -- that is, until he turned on me during the final live "Oklahoma" tackling drill. He hit me so hard I think I landed in New Jersey. "Oh, I get it," I said, speaking directly through the earhole of my helmet. "One too many Arena League jokes in the column, eh?"|
|Ernie Graf had warned me in junior high that all my bullying would one day come back to haunt me and, dang it, it turns out he was right. As my so-called teammates left me behind to bake in the Philly summer sun, I wanted to yell, "Heeeeeey Wahlberg: Sooner or later, I'll get free of this tape -- but you'll always be attached to 'Rock Star.'"|
|During pre-rehearsal film study, a single thought ran through my head: "Don't turn around anymore to stare at the tape on that dude's hands ... don't do it ... no . . .dang it." Before hitting the field, Ellis showed us an old NFL Films reel on Papale that described the Eagles special teamers under Dick Vermeil as a "savage band of opportunists."|
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.