But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.’
When Asa heard these words, the prophecy of Azariah son of Oded, he took courage…
2nd Chronicles 15:7-8
If you are not moist-eyed before the conclusion of this film, then you probably will be the only one in the theater who is. Like the film Rudy, the true story of a young man who dreamed of becoming a member of the Notre Dame football team, this story of a South Philadelphian bar tender who became a member of the Eagles is an incredible story of courage and perseverance. Although the film title fits into the usual sports mentality, a better title would be “Perseverance,” or “Courage,” because these are the traits which enable Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) to fulfill his unlikely dream of playing pro football. The words of encouragement spoken by the prophet Azariah to the Israelite King Asa could have been addressed to him.
Unlike Rudy, Vince is not young, having reached the age of thirty, a time when many professionals are retiring, or planning on it. As the film begins he is at the nadir of his life, behind on his rent, forced to tend bar after he loses his substitute teaching job, and left by his wife, who is fed up with their hand-to-mouth existence. Fortunately he is blessed with staunch friends, with whom he plays a bruising game of sandlot football after hours. Often his buddies depend upon his skillful hands and fast speed in running to overcome their opponents. At the bar he and his buddies watch in dismay the out of town games of their beloved Eagles as they lose game after game. Loyal fans, even though their team is at the bottom of the league, they attend the in-town games and root for an unlikely victory. And then a new coach comes to town.
Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) is plucked from UCLA where he had led his team to a Rose Bowl victory. To win over the hard to convince fans and to promote interest in the team he comes up with a gimmick—there will be an open try out for any fan to become a member of the team. The sports experts pontificate that no one would pass muster, but hundreds of fans grasp at the chance. The modest Vince had at first resisted his friends’ encouragement to go. Even his own father had advised him not to do so to avoid the disappointment of rejection. After some hesitancy Vince does join the long line of wannabes. After a daylong ordeal of calisthenics, running, catching, blocking and tackling, and getting the wind knocked out of themselves everyone is dismissed by Vermeil. Everyone but the man he had noted was the fastest on the field and who seemed to have the heart and drive that he is looking for in order to rebuild the team. To the overwhelming joy of his friends back at the bar, Vince is invited to spring training camp.
Most of the rest of the film is devoted to Vince’s ordeal at the camp where the pros scorn and keep him at arm’s length, predicting that he will not last the weekly cuts. It is not giving anything away to report that he survives and makes the special team, and—well, go and see, and cheer. Director Ericson Core and screenwriter Brad Gann have crafted a fine film based on the life of Vincent Papale, who, we are told in the inevitable prologue, played three seasons for the Eagles, and then married fellow bartender Janet and retired to New Jersey. The character of Janet, well played by Elizabeth Banks, adds both a romantic touch to the film and some humor. Growing up with five brothers in New York City, she has become a Giants fan, often wearing her Giants T-shirt to work. Her bar friends have to protect her from other irate fans when she wears it to Eagles’ games and roots for the Giants when they come to Philadelphia to play. As a non-fan of the game I was totally swept up in this heart-warming film, and I suspect you will be also.
1) What conventions of the sports genre does this film follow? How is the theme of the underdog at the center of most such films? Why do you think we almost always root for the underdog? For Christians do you see any connection with Jesus’ words, “And the first shall be last, and the last first”?
2) Why do you think people identify so with their sports teams? What did the Eagles mean to Vince’s father? How were they like a church for him during his time of sorrow?
3) How does the bar function like a church for Vince? How does his friends’ encouragement show the importance of community? Would he have tried out on his own?
4) One of Vince’s friends, Johnny, does, not share in the joy of Vince’s becoming a member of the Eagles’ team: why is he so resentful? How does Vince overcome this? What risk did Vince take when he joined his buddies on the playing field just before an Eagles’ game?
5) What do you think of the emphasis upon winning in the world of sports? Is there a place for losers in it? Compare this with a Christian understanding of winning and losing. For a delightful study of a loser who becomes a winner (sort of) see Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose.