Delaware lost one of its all-time greatest athletes recently and, sadly, many people don’t even know who he was, especially younger people.
Ron Waller’s hey-day was in the 1950s, well before mass media and social media made heroes and villains out of so many sports figures.
Waller was one of the best high school football players in state history while setting records at Laurel High, then he starred at the University of Maryland and helped the Terps win a national championship before he was drafted with the 15th overall draft pick by the Washington Redskins in 1955, at a time when the NFL was far from the mega-popular sport it is today.
Waller, who lived in Blades before dying on Dec. 17 at the age of 85, was traded to the Los Angeles Rams and quickly made his mark as he was named All-Pro as a rookie after rushing for 716 yards, fourth-best in the league, and led the Rams to the NFL championship game (no, there was nothing Super about the game back then), where they lost to the Cleveland Browns.
Knee injuries cut his NFL career short, and after a brief stint with the Los Angeles Chargers of the upstart American Football League, Waller eventually became a coach with the Chargers in the early 1970s, after the NFL and AFL merged.
Waller was also the head coach of the Philadelphia Bell of the short-lived World Football League in 1974, and that’s where he launched an improbable football and film career.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen the movie Invincible, which is based on the exploits of bartender-turned-Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale. It’s a fun movie that states at the beginning that it’s based on a true story, and it is, but the truth gets stretched mighty thin at times.
And here’s where the movie deviates from the truth the most. In the film, new Eagles coach Dick Vermeil announces that he will hold open try-outs for his downtrodden team and Papale – played by actor Mark Wahlberg – reluctantly takes part. He then impresses the Eagles coaches with his speed (the real Papale never played college football, but he did run track at St. Joseph’s University) and pass-catching ability and they invite him to training camp (then held at Widener University).
Papale then continues to impress the coaches and actually makes the team (cue the Rocky theme music…).
Well, it didn’t happen that way, and Papale is the first to acknowledge that it was Ron Waller, not Dick Vermeil, who opened the door to his brief NFL career. I interviewed Papale when Invincible was released in 2006 and he said, “I owe everything I have to Ron Waller because he believed in me when nobody else did. He’s just a great man, in every sense of the word.”
That’s because it was Waller and the Bell – not Vermeil and the Eagles – who held that open tryout that kicked off Papale’s professional career. And it was Waller – not Vermeil – who was first impressed with Papale’s intensity, desire and athleticism. And it was Waller – not Vermeil – who gave Papale a chance and signed him to a professional contract.
Then Waller did Papale another huge favor. After the WFL folded, he recommended Papale to Vermeil, and that’s how Vince Papale ended up as an Eagle for three seasons (during which he caught one pass for 15 yards while shining on special teams).
“Coach Waller went out if his way to help me and that’s something you never forget,” Papale said. “I know this – there would be no Invincible without Ron Waller.”