One of Hollywood's big hits in recent weeks, "Invincible," is the inspiring story of a struggling bartender from South Philadelphia, Vince Papale, who overcomes unbelievable odds to make the Eagles' roster.
Papale played special teams for the Eagles for three seasons (1976-78). Just prior, the Redskins had their own Vince Papale-type player in a young man named Herb Mul-Key.
But unlike Papale, who played for the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League before coming to the Eagles, Mul-Key had no pro experience, nor college for that matter, when he attended Redskins coach George Allen's free agent tryout camp prior to the 1972 season.
Just one player every three years. That's all Allen wanted for his free agent camps to be considered a success.
He found a gem in Mul-Key, a 5-10, 180-pound speedster who played three seasons in Washington (1972-74). He posted more than 1,500 kickoff return yards, including 1,011 with a 97-yard TD return in his only Pro Bowl season, 1973, when he also averaged nearly 10 yards on punt returns.
Today, he's second to Bobby Mitchell in the Redskin record books with a 27.87 career kick return average.
His rags-to-riches story is rooted in the foresight of Redskins linebacker Harold McLinton. The late McLinton, an Atlanta native, encouraged Mul-Key, also from Atlanta, to attend Allen's free agent camp.
Mul-Key, a one-time Navy serviceman who'd rushed for more than 1,800 yards one year for an Atlanta semipro squad, borrowed money so he could fly to Washington. He and some 330 other no-names dreaming of NFL careers gathered at Georgetown University on April 14, 1972.
Mul-Key stood out among a motley bunch that included truck drivers and a refugee from Hungary. Then-Redskin special teams coach Marv Levy timed players on the wet field.
"I happened to be where Mul-Key's group was running," said Levy, who later coached the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowl appearances. "I timed him in an amazing 4.35 (in the 40), which is like running 4.1 now. I told Tim Temerario, our director of player personnel, about Mul-Key's 4.35. He said,
Oh, nonsense. Let's time him again.' We did, and Tim says,What'd you get?' I said, '4.36.' Tim got 4.34."
Levy and Temerario were sold on Mul-Key, as was Allen.
"He's the number one prospect," the coach told reporters. "He's good, that man's good."
Mul-Key signed a free agent contract and made the roster. The rookie saw no action until the Redskins visited Dallas late in the 1972 season.
Mul-Key made one of the most phenomenal debuts in NFL history. He piled up 271 total yards: 173 on kickoff returns, 60 on eight rushes (7.5 average) and 38 on two receptions.
He almost single-handedly brought the Redskins back from a 25-point halftime deficit in their 34-24 loss. For those in disbelief, he gave an encore performance in the season-ending loss to Buffalo by accounting for 123 of the Redskins' 171 yards.
The "Mul-Key Way" was born, and it caught the attention of people coast-to-coast. A few days before the Redskins appeared that season in Super Bowl VII, a Los Angeles Times headline read: "Redskins' Herbert Mul-Key--He's One in a Million."
Mul-Key played for the Redskins two more years but was cut before the 1975 season, ending an experience that proved dreams really can come true.
"Everybody really enjoyed him because he survived something that no one else could," said Pat Fischer, the great Redskins cornerback who teamed with Mul-Key. "You really kind of appreciate a guy who comes from nowhere to make it. We all kind of adopted him."
Michael Richman is a freelance writer who specializes in Redskins history. His e-mail address is email@example.com.