On April 26, 2009, former NFL wide receiver Paul Salata, 82, ambled to the podium located center stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York and made the following announcement: “With the 256th pick of the 2009 NFL draft—and final pick—the Kansas City Chiefs select Ryan Succop, kicker, South Carolina. He becomes the 34th Mr. Irrelevant, and will be feted in June in Newport Beach, California, the fun capital of the world.” Standing beside Salata, an unidentified individual held a red Chiefs jersey with the number 256 and “Mr. Irrelevant” stitched on the back, highlighting Succop’s newfound status and reminding observers that 255 pro prospects had been selected ahead of him.
Of course, in every NFL draft someone has to be chosen last. But thanks to Salata, that player is referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. In 1976, the long-since-retired receiver came up with the offbeat idea of honoring the last man drafted by offering said individual a free trip to California. Then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle—who knew Salata through Paul’s volunteer work with his former team, the San Francisco 49ers—embraced the idea, and that spring Toledo running back Kelvin Kirk (selected at the bottom of the 17th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers) agreed to spend a week in Newport Beach. For his part, Salata promised that Kirk would be “treated like the first player drafted,” who, in case you’re wondering, was defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, chosen by the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The first Irrelevant Week got off to a shaky start, though, when Kirk missed his flight, and Salata & friends were forced to begin an introductory press conference without their special guest. Fortunately, none of the local media knew what Kirk looked like, which enabled the organizers to use a local butcher as a stand-in. “When Kirk arrived he literally elbowed the butcher out of the way and we kept going,” recalls Paul’s daughter, Melanie Salata Fitch, who now serves as chief executive of Irrelevant Week.
Not surprisingly, Kirk failed to win a roster spot with the Steelers, a two-time defending Super Bowl champion that featured future Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. (For what it’s worth, Selmon’s career got off to an inauspicious start too, as Tampa Bay lost its first 26 regular season games before finally earning a win late in the 1977 season.) But the inaugural Irrelevant Week went well enough that Salata resolved to make it an annual tradition, and it’s been a fixture on the NFL landscape ever since.
Looking back at the trajectory of Salata’s pro football career it’s hardly a surprise that he felt compelled to create an event that celebrates the underdog. The future founder of Irrelevant Week was a good enough football player to earn a scholarship to the University of Southern California (and absorb a 49-0 loss to Michigan in the 1948 Rose Bowl, as Wolverine supporters like to remind him). After college Salata caught on with the 49ers before spending a single year with the Baltimore Colts. But the Colts franchise disbanded following the 1950 season and Salata was declared draft-eligible, which explains how the then-lowly Steelers were able to select the two-year NFL veteran in the tenth round of the 1951 draft. But when Salata received an offer from the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League (CFL) he “defected to Canada,” as Fitch puts it, ostensibly because the money was better in the CFL.
Ironically, Salata is now better known for Irrelevant Week than for anything he accomplished on the field. Each April for the past 10 years he has journeyed to New York to announce the final selection, which not only provides him national exposure on ESPN2 and the NFL Network, it also enables his daughter to immediately make contact with the new Mr. Irrelevant.
“At the draft,” begins Fitch, “I’m on the floor at the table of the team that is selecting last. After my dad announces the pick, the team’s coach gets on the phone with the player and says something like, ‘Hi Ryan, we want to welcome you to the Kansas City Chiefs…. And now, Melanie Fitch is going to invite you to Irrelevant Week. We really encourage you to go. It’s a great program,’” she relates.
With the tradition now well into its fourth decade, most of today’s draft prospects have at least heard of Mr. Irrelevant, so few honorees are caught totally unaware. “Growing up I watched the NFL draft, so I was familiar with it,” offers Succop [pronounced “suck-up”], giving him a leg up on some predecessors, who haven’t always grasped the meaning of “irrelevant.”
“They say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of Irreverent Week,’ or ‘I’ve heard of Irresponsible Week,’” says Fitch, before admitting that she wishes her father had chosen a phrase that was more marketing friendly—or at least more overtly positive. “Dad referred to the guy as ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ because he believed he was <i>not</i> irrelevant,” notes Fitch, explaining her father’s counterintuitive thinking. “So it sounds like we’re saying he’s irrelevant, but it’s [actually] irrelevant that he was drafted last.”
Needless to say, it helps Fitch’s cause immeasurably when a team’s head coach advises Mr. Irrelevant that he is expected to attend Irrelevant Week. “The draftees don’t necessarily trust us,” she laments. “They worry that we’ll get them out there and be mean to them,” not recognizing that “we make him king for a week.” On the other hand, players who are vaguely familiar with the tradition sometimes overestimate its perks. “They say things like, ‘Do I get a car? Do I get a Lamborghini? Do I get to meet Halle Berry?’” she reports.
Naturally, the best case scenario for Salata & Fitch is that the chosen one is actually in the building, which has happened only once since father and daughter began attending the draft. In 1999, Jim Finn, a fullback out of the University of Pennsylvania, commuted from his family’s home in New Jersey to watch the proceedings in person. After the Chicago Bears selected him with pick 253, the Irrelevant Week crew ushered Finn onto the stage for a live interview, mimicking the kind of treatment afforded to players selected at the top of round one.
Finn went on to become one of the most successful Irrelevant picks, at least in terms of longevity. Waived by the Bears at the end of training camp, he spent a month on Chicago’s practice squad, then signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent the following year. He spent three seasons with the Colts—fumbling on his only carry during his first year with the team—before playing four seasons with the New York Giants.
Meanwhile, defensive back Michael Green, drafted by the Bears in 2000, also carved out a long career, playing six years with Chicago, two with the Seattle Seahawks, and one with the Washington Redskins. (He is currently an unrestricted free agent.) And linebacker Marty Moore, drafted in 1994 by the New England Patriots, played eight years in the league and became the first Mr. Irrelevant to appear in a Super Bowl.
Generally speaking, the Mr. Irrelevants of the past ten years have had more success in the league than those from the distant past, most of whom never played a down in a regular season game. In part, the contrast can be explained by the reduction in the number of rounds in the draft (from 17 in 1976 to 12 from 1977-1992 to eight in 1993 to seven every year since). It’s logical that a player picked at No. 487 (like Kirk in 1976), would be much less likely to make a team than, say, 2008’s Mr. Irrelevant, David Vobora, a linebacker who played in eight games with the St. Louis Rams last season.
But the introduction of compensatory draft choices may also play a role. In the 1970s and 80s, Mr. Irrelevant was typically selected by the previous season’s Super Bowl winner, as that club was assigned the final pick in every round. Naturally, it was especially difficult for a 12th round pick to earn a place on a championship team. But with the advent of compensatory picks (handed out by the league as compensation for losses in free agency), any team could conceivably find itself with the final selection. Last season, for example, the Chiefs had the third-worst team in the NFL. So, in theory, Succop has a better chance of earning a roster spot with the Chiefs than he would if drafted by the Steelers, last year’s Super Bowl winner.
Still, Fitch and her fellow organizers know it’s imperative that they do everything possible to turn Mr. Irrelevant’s 15 seconds of fame into five days of fun, because the end of his pro football career may be just months away. That means being flexible enough to adapt to unexpected developments.
In 1978, for instance, the last player taken was Lee Washburn, a guard from Montana State, picked by the Dallas Cowboys. When the Salatas discovered that Washburn had been injured and was in traction, they invited the next-to-last pick—Bill Kenney, a quarterback from Northern Colorado, who had been chosen by the Miami Dolphins. But the day before the festivities were scheduled to get underway, they learned that Washburn had regained his health and planned to attend, so they made room for both Kenney and Washburn, one of only two occasions—1980 being the other—that they have hosted a pair of players.
As it turns out, Washburn’s best moment as a Cowboy came during Irrelevant Week, when a horse race at a local track (“The Irrelevant Race”) was won by a longshot named Cowboys Dream. The unlikely result prompted Washburn to approach Salata to ask whether he had fixed the race for his benefit. (He didn’t.)
Yet the greatest challenges faced by the organizers have come in recent years. In 2001, the Arizona Cardinals used the last pick on Tevita Ofahengaue, a tight end out of Brigham Young University. Ofahengaue seemed excited about Irrelevant Week, and made just one request of his hosts. “He asked if his family could attend,” recalls Fitch, who didn’t envision any problem with accommodating a family member or two. But Ofahengaue is from Tonga, “and 63 family members—like a whole village,” descended on Newport Beach. “And I had to find them rooms,” she exclaims, the stress of that experience still evident in her voice. “So now we have the Tevita rule. The player is only allowed to bring one guest. If the rest of the family wants to come they are welcome, but we’re not able to pay for their flights and lodging.”
However, the only year things really went haywire was in 2005, when Irrelevant Week crossed paths with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who had selected Andy Stokes, a tight end out of William Penn University. “Belichick thinks Irrelevant Week is a ruse—that it doesn’t exist,” explains Fitch. “And up until the last minute, the Patriots weren’t going to let Stokes attend. It was only after [then] NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue interceded that the Patriots said okay—but not for the whole week.”
As a result, Fitch had to compress the events of the week into just a few days, and made arrangements befitting a head of state to ensure that Stokes would be on a red-eye back to Boston, landing in time to participate in an early morning practice. But when Stokes arrived at the facility at 7:30 a.m. there was no one there—it was padlocked. “It was just Belichick wanting to manipulate,” explains Fitch, who unhesitatingly refers to the Patriots’ coach as a “curmudgeon.”
That’s why the next time the Patriots hold the last pick, New England will be on a short leash. “Maybe Belichick has changed—I really don’t care,” says a still-annoyed Fitch. “We have great support from [current commissioner] Roger Goodell and the NFL so I don’t think we’d have a problem with the Patriots again, but if we did we would take our toys and go home. We’d take the next-to-last guy or even the next guy,” implying that she would contact the team with the first pick in the draft and ask who they would have selected if they had another choice.
Fortunately for Fitch, there’s little chance of Belichick trading into the last spot with the intention of causing trouble. For many years, the league has made a habit of awarding compensatory choices at the end of the seventh round, and by rule, compensatory picks cannot be dealt away. Making the last choice untradeable also prevents any of the other 31 teams from acquiring the selection for the wrong reasons. In 1988, the Rams traded for the Irrelevant pick and called the name of Jeff Beathard, son of then-San Diego Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard, a move that smacked of cronyism. For what it’s worth, Beathard the younger was cut by the Rams in training camp.
This year, however, Fitch expects smooth sailing with Succop, who says he is “definitely looking forward” to going out to California with his mom, dad and two sisters. Reviewing his schedule of activities, it’s easy to see why.
On Monday, June 22, he’ll start the day with a round of golf, scheduled to play with two NFL Hall of Famers and retired broadcaster John Madden, who is penciled in as the final member of the foursome. Then on his first night there’ll be a “kick-off party” at a waterfront resort, which will include a “shower of [over 200] gifts,” among them a gold watch and a key to the city. Rumor has it that local bank may even make him a millionaire for a day, though that’s not as lucrative as it might seem, as a day’s interest on a million dollars isn’t what it used to be.
On Tuesday, Succop will be the guest of Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, which isn’t quite the same as being the Super Bowl MVP and going to Disney World, but it’s a start. Afterwards, he will attend a Los Angeles Angels game versus the Colorado Rockies at Angel Stadium. Being Mr. Irrelevant, he doesn’t rate high enough to throw out the first pitch, but he will have the opportunity to drag the infield with the grounds crew.
On Wednesday, the guest of honor will begin his day with an in-studio interview at the NFL Network, and that night he’ll attend the infamous Lowsman Banquet, where celebrities and ex-NFL players and coaches will roast him and present the Lowsman Trophy, which is reminiscent of the Heisman, except that the figure is fumbling the ball. (Believe it or not, Irrelevant Week 2003 featured a Heisman-Lowsman banquet, which included Heisman winner/future Cincinnati Bengals QB Carson Palmer and Mr. Irrelevant Ryan Hoag, a wide receiver from Gustavus Adolphus College, a Division III school that hadn’t produced a draft-worthy player in 18 years.) Past attendees at the Lowsman ceremony have included such NFL legends as Merlin Olsen, Jerry Rice and O.J. Simpson, “though O.J. will be difficult to get this year,” quips Fitch.
Finally, on Succop’s last day in town he’ll enjoy a beach party, a surf lesson, and volleyball with the girls’ volleyball team from the University of California-Irvine. Then it’s off to “Irrelevant Regatta,” where he’ll be aboard a sailboat during a regatta. Last, but certainly not least, he will preside over a Ms. Irrelevant contest, where he will have the opportunity to select—you guessed it—Ms. Irrelevant.
While the majority of his predecessors haven’t had much success in the NFL, Succop has a decent chance of earning a roster spot in 2009. The fact that the Chiefs spent a draft choice on Succop (only two placekickers were drafted this year) is indicative of how highly regarded he is by Kansas City, as NFL teams are loath to spend draft choices on kickers. Second, as a specialist, he only has to beat out one other player to win a job, his competition being Connor Barth, who converted 10 of 12 field goal attempts last season. And, if things don't work out with the Chiefs, there are several other clubs that might be in the market for a young, inexpensive placekicker.
If nothing else, Succop appears to have the right attitude for playing the role of Mr. Irrelevant. “It’s an interesting situation to be in,” he admits. “I take it for what it’s worth and I’ll try to make the most of it, but at the same time, my main focus is on football and doing all I can to help the Chiefs.” If Succop’s confidence is any indication, he may be taking the first steps towards a long NFL career. “I don’t plan on being irrelevant,” he told the Associated Press shortly after being drafted. “I plan on making an impact right away. I’ve been blessed with the ability to [kick] and I’m looking forward to doing it.”