Friday, August 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL draft: Mr. Irrelevant title has gained in relevance

PHILADELPHIA — Cam Quayle went on to be a dentist. Bill Kenney was elected a state senator in Missouri. Ryan Hoag appeared on the television reality show The Bachelorette. Marty Moore played in a Super Bowl.

Don't recognize the names? That's okay. Or better said, that's irrelevant, because the point is not who they are but what they were — Mr. Irrelevants.

The nickname goes to the last player chosen in the NFL draft (or in a few cases, to the second-to-last), long after the hoopla and endless chatter over the No. 1 pick. By then, most television viewers of the annual spectacle have changed channels.

But thanks to Paul Salata, a 90-year-old former professional football player with a charitable streak and mischievous sense of humor, since 1976 the last picks in the draft have been crowned Mr. Irrelevant and feted and good-naturedly ribbed for a week in southern California by people with an appreciation for the underdog.

As the NFL has ratcheted up the draft as a big television show, in part to keep the viewership fires burning in the offseason, even Irrelevant does not seem as irrelevant as he was in years past. With expanded rosters and practice squads, many Mr. Irrelevants are able to carve out a modest living. Some teams have angled to have the last pick and the media attention that comes with it.

But there is one constant through the years: The last pick rarely makes a dent in his team's record, with most Mr. Irrelevants spending the bulk of their careers in obscurity on the bench or ending up in the CFL. Some have had serviceable or noteworthy careers, but most remain, well, irrelevant to the team's performance.

On Saturday, the Denver Broncos, with the last pick, No. 253, generated the Mr. Irrelevant of 2017: quarterback Chad Kelly of Mississippi — the nephew of Buffalo Bills' Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly.

Unlike the No. 1 pick, which is widely anticipated and seen by millions of fans, the name of Mr. Irrelevant is typically heard by only a handful of fans, diehard followers who tend to rush the stage in mock jubilation just before the last pick is announced. This year, Salata's daughter, Melanie Fitch, did the honor. She also unfurled a jersey with the number 253 on the back.

Salata takes special satisfaction in the annual offbeat ritual.

Like most of the players awarded Mr. Irrelevant, Salata had a career, in the early 1950s, that was brief and largely unremarkable. A wide receiver at USC, he played just 23 games in the old All-American Football Conference and the NFL, and then a few years in Canada, before leaving the game in 1953.

After football, he landed a few minor roles in movies like Stalag 17, and then went to work in his family's construction business in southern California.

For years afterward, he helped one of his old teams, the San Francisco 49ers, on draft day, and saw how players picked in the lower rounds received little notice. Given his own humble career, he thought they deserved a spotlight as well.

"Everyone who is drafted works hard, and some of them don't get any recognition," Salata said in a phone interview from his home in Newport Beach, Calif. "They do their work and should be noticed."

About 50 years ago, Salata read about people in a charitable mood who would pick individuals out of a phone book and offer to fly them to Southern California. He wanted to apply what he saw as an act of kindness to football players. So he approached the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, who liked his idea of naming the last draft pick Mr. Irrelevant and flying the player to Newport Beach for a celebration.

The first Irrelevant Week got off to an appropriately madcap start.

The last player chosen in 1976, Kelvin Kirk, by the Pittsburgh Steelers, initially thought he was being mocked. So Salata called the team's owner, Art Rooney, whom he knew from his brief stay in Pittsburgh, and asked him to tell Kirk that he was in fact being honored. Kirk agreed to participate, but missed his flight to California and the parade in his honor.

That didn't stop the parade from going forward.

Salata went into a grocery store and persuaded a butcher, who looked like a football player, to stand in for Kirk. People cheered and waved, apparently not realizing, or caring, that he was a plant for Kirk.

As his fill-in was answering questions during a news conference after the parade, Kirk arrived from a later flight and took over midway through. The reporters kept asking questions as if nothing had happened, Salata said.

Kirk's NFL career, like those of many other Mr. Irrelevants, was brief. He was cut after training camp that summer, and ended up in Canada, where he played for several years. He died in 2003.

Mr. Irrelevant has added a dash of whimsy to the rules- and order-obsessed NFL. The league provides the platform for the tradition to continue but is not involved in Irrelevant Week, other than to provide items to be auctioned for charity.

Teams, though, have come to realize that picking Mr. Irrelevant can turn into a media bonanza, so much so that they have tried to trade for the last pick in the draft. There is now the "Salata Rule," which prohibits a team from deliberately passing on a pick for the purpose of choosing last.

A few times, the Mr. Irrelevant crown has passed to the penultimate pick. In 1978, for instance, the last player taken in the draft, Lee Washburn, was injured and unable to travel, so Salata flew Kenney, who ended up having a respectable nine-year career as a quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs, to Newport Beach as Washburn's understudy.

Most players are so focused on trying to prepare for their first NFL training camp that it takes them time to fully appreciate the attention being showered on them as the last pick.

"Everyone in the NFL is steadfast that if you're not picked in the first round, you might as well be last," Hoag said. But celebrating the last pick in the draft makes sense, he said, because "you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than getting drafted in the NFL."

Hoag has made the most of his odd celebrity. After leaving the NFL, he worked in Italy as a model, and appeared on the reality show "Bachelor Pad" along with "The Bachelorette." He now coaches tennis and works with children with disabilities.

Salata asks each winner what he would like to do during his celebration. Hoag, for instance, wanted to be the guest announcer on Jimmy Kimmel's show, which was arranged. At least one visited the Playboy Mansion. Others have taken surfing lessons or visited Disneyland.

Salata's generosity, though, has its limits. In 2001, the Arizona Cardinals chose tight end Tevita Ofahengaue last in the draft. Told to bring his family, Ofahengaue, who is from Tonga, where extended families stick together, took that literally and invited 62 people, with 35 friends and additional relatives showing up on their own.

That led to the "Ofahengaue Rule." Now, players can bring one person free, but others must pay their own airfare.

Ofahengaue, who played parts of three seasons and now works as the director of recruiting operations at his alma mater, Brigham Young, said he remained friends with Salata and his family, and was proud that he had been recognized for overcoming the odds and being drafted, regardless of the round.

"It's something they can't take away from me," Ofahengaue said. "It's like the Rudy story."

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