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Invincible Spirits
Cherry Hill’s Vince and Janet Papale, South Jersey’s patron saints of the underdog, are devoted to bringing out the best in our region and beyond.

by Whitney McKnight

…From the pages of Suburban Family…

Cherry Hill’s Vince and Janet Papale, South Jersey’s patron saints of the underdog, are devoted to bringing out the best in our region and beyond.

Vince and Janet Papale’s lives have been transformed not once, but twice. The first time was a Philadelphia miracle: Vince’s against-the-odds triumph as a 30-year-old walk-on to the Eagles special teams. The second time, the one that made the couple a legend, was the 2006 release of the Disney film Invincible, chronicling that unlikely success and resonating with thousands of fans from around the globe.

“The way the world is now, people need hope,” says Janet Papale, explaining why, four years after the movie’s release, the Cherry Hill couple still receives letters and emails. “Vince’s story inspires them. In turn, we are inspired. We’re trying to give back as much as we get.”

To that end, the Papales devote a large part of their time to charitable causes such as the Eagles Fly for Leukemia and the USO. Their latest venture is Invincible Kids, celebrating children and teens who’ve overcome great odds to achieve something notable. Suburban Family recently had a chance to ask the Papales about their community involvement, the challenges they face in their own lives, and what they see as the most important things we can teach our children.

SF: Before the movie came out, you were living fairly quiet lives. Vince, you were working for Sallie Mae, and Janet, you were selling real estate. Having played for the Eagles was in your past. How has the movie changed your outlook on your life?
Vince: I have more gratitude as a result of the movie. Back in 1976 [the year he made the team], I never felt that what I did was that great. I understand why my story appeals to adults—but that kids are so excited by it, that just takes my breath away.

SF: You’ve received literally thousands of cards, letters and emails from people your story inspired. Some of their stories are just heartbreaking. Between the two of you, you try to answer each of these correspondences. Doesn’t it become a burden?
Janet: It’s okay if it’s a burden. Why just inspire people? Why not also give them the tools to help them get through?
Vince: It’s a gift that’s been given to me and I accept the responsibility. I’m gonna do everything in my power to help. I wouldn’t have related to people as much as I do now. I’m not unique. Everybody has had an invincible moment they can draw upon; mine just happened to have marquee value.

SF: What do you mean, to draw upon our invincible moments?
Vince: Anybody can be invincible in tough times. You have to analyze what you did in that moment. Invincibility is doing the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the impossible. Ask yourself, ‘How do I do that again?’ Take a look what issue you’re facing now, and adapt what you did before. Then achieve what you set out to do. We constantly have to be fluid to meet challenges in our lives. You might have to adjust, but you execute a plan and get things done.
Janet: Especially today, with all the pressures people are facing like unemployment, people have to learn to re-invent themselves. People have to take risks. But they need to know it’s OK to fail. You learn from failure, not success.

SF: Both of you have notable accomplishments in your lives. Janet, you were on the U.S. World Gymnastics team and coached a winning team at the University of Pennsylvania. What’s the most important thing for parents to teach their kids about achievement?
Vince: I’m adamant about this. I think parents need to teach discipline. There’s too much entitlement. You have to earn things in life. Kids need to know how to master things. Also, it’s important to listen to your children. Get to know them. Be a part of their life. Give them reasons to trust you.
Janet: Stick together as a family. You don’t need outside approval. Also, be kind. Be respectful. Have perseverance.

SF: What about kids who have parents who, for whatever reason, aren’t quite “there” for them?
Vince: I’m extremely sensitive to young people with these challenges because my mom had a mental illness. There were a lot of things going on in my life that made me feel terribly shy and insecure. I overcame them because I had a mentor. He was my phys ed teacher. He could see what was going on with me and offered to help. He believed in me. Peers are also very important because you spend more time with them. Mentors are harder to come by, but kids just have to ask. A lot of kids are ashamed and don’t want to open up, but people do want to help.
Janet: So many kids are going through tough times at home. This area might have a lot of wealth, but that’s irrelevant to the problems kids face, like divorce or parents with prescription drug addictions. Kids need people they can talk to. Peers are very important. There are good character education programs in our schools now. We want to build on that type of curriculum.

SF: What is your new project Invincible Kids all about?
Janet: First, we want to recognize kids who are doing the impossible, the amazing. We want to provide resources and support for kids who are leaders, who are aware of their impact and who try to use it for good. It’s important to involve educators in this process. There are great programs already doing this, like the peer to peer programs in our area’s public schools, but they are facing cutbacks. For now, though, we do have some corporate support, but we’re still in the planning stages. Eventually, we want to take it nationally.

SF: What challenges do you face in your life now?
Janet: We’re juggling being parents and making a living, and getting it all done. People think having a movie made about your life makes you a millionaire, but it doesn’t. But it does give you a chance to have more impact, more responsibility. We’re trying to live up to that and to work, and to raise our kids.
Vince: Sometimes, I do get “peopled out” and I just want to be with my family. I want to be there with my kids as their father. I want them to know they are safe, loved, and trusted.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family, Volume 1, Issue 8 (October, 2010).
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