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Thirty-five years ago, Vince Papale, a 30-year-old school teacher and part-time bartender, walked onto the field at a Philadelphia Eagles tryout and left with a contract and a story of overcoming odds that would inspire the 2006 blockbuster Disney film “Invincible.” A few months after Papale’s walk-on, a group of 8th grade students at Keith Valley Middle School in Horsham held a floor hockey marathon to raise money in memory of a classmate who died of a congenital heart defect and set in motion an ongoing effort that, over the next 34 years, would garner nearly $680,000 for various charities.

The two histories merged on Feb. 10 and 11 when the Hatboro-Horsham Educational Foundation brought Papale to Horsham to share his inspirational message with the community and students – and kick off the 35th Keith Valley Challenge.

Papale, author of “Invincible: My Journey from Fan to NFL Team Captain,” spoke at a community forum at Keith Valley Middle School. Papale shared with the audience his inspirational journey from humble working class beginnings and troubled home life, to successful professional athlete, businessman, and cancer survivor.

In 1976, Eagles first-year head coach Dick Vermeil invited locals to an open tryout in what some thought was merely a publicity stunt. At the urging of friends and family, Papale, a former college track star – and Eagles season ticket-holder – accepted the challenge. Vermeil offered him a contract on the spot, but he still had to make the team. Overcoming enormous odds, he became the oldest rookie in the history of the NFL (excluding kickers) and a team captain. He played for four years and was named “Most Outstanding Special Teams Player” in a www.PhiladelphiaEagles.com vote in conjunction with the team’s 75th anniversary.

The Hatboro-Horsham Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides funding for classroom projects and programs that expand the students’ learning experiences, brought Papale to the district to honor the spirit of Keith Valley students who have kept the Keith Valley Challenge going since the first hockey marathon in February 1977, said HHEF Executive Director Laurie Rosard.

All KV students viewed the film “Invincible” on February 10, the day of Papale’s community forum and heard his story from the athlete himself during several assemblies the next day. Papale also served as the keynote speaker, kicking off the 17-hour marathon on Friday, February 11. 

Photography by Nancy Tirrell Paravano