Paul Salata died last week one day before his 95th birthday in a way he would have found most amusing: His passing was seen as, relatively speaking, irrelevant.
Isn’t that exactly what the man who invented the Mr. Irrelevant Award would have liked?
Paul Salata is not a name revered in pro football circles except by everyone who ever met him. Although a wide receiver at USC in the years after World War II – 1944, 1946 and 1947 (he missed the 1945 season to serve in the Army Air Corps in the final year of the war) - he was never an All-America selection or a Trojan hero. He was hardly irrelevant, however, playing on USC teams that won what was then called the Pacific Coast Conference, the forerunner of today’s PAC-12, three of the years he played and that twice reached the Rose Bowl.
Salata caught a touchdown pass in USC’s 25-0 rout of Tennessee in the 1945 Rose Bowl and was also an infielder on the USC baseball team that won the College World Series in 1948. The man could play, even if he wasn’t quite as relevant as some of his teammates.
He would go on to play both minor-league baseball and the National Football League. He spent three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, catching 50 passes and scoring four touchdowns before moving on to the Canadian Football League and becoming a CFL All-Star in 1952 and 1953. His playing career north of the border ended then but not his time in pro football.
Some 23 years after leaving the game behind to work as a successful sewer construction contractor and bit player in nearly two dozen Hollywood films, Salata came up with an idea. Living in sunny Newport Beach, Cal., Salata decided he would “do something for someone for no good reason.” That someone was the last player selected in that year’s NFL Draft.
Thus was born “Mr. Irrelevant.”
For each year since, Salata organized and ran a celebration of a player who otherwise would be doomed to receive no recognition beyond his family and friends, even though he had at least reached the bottom rung of what was very likely a lifelong dream to play pro football.
That first honoree, Kelvin Kirk, was a wide receiver from Dayton who was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 487th pick in the 1976 draft. He remains the highest – or is it lowest? – draft pick in Mr. Irrelevant history.
Each year since 1976, Mr. Irrelevant and his family spent an all-expenses paid week in Orange County being wined, dined, honored and taken to Disneyland before reaching the ultimate moment at a banquet in his honor when he was presented with the “Lowsman Award,” the upside down equivalent of college football’s highest individual honor. Unlike the Heisman Trophy, which features a bronze statue of a runner with the ball in one hand stiff-arming an imaginary tackler with the other, the Lowsman is depicted, naturally, fumbling the ball.
For many years Salata funded most of the costs before garnering some sponsors and donors to help defray expenses. Salata appeared many years on the podium on the final day of the draft, long after most people had stopped watching, to hold up the last pick’s new team jersey with the words “Mr. Irrelevant” on the back, along with whatever his draft number might be. Often times the number was well over 300.
Salata last served in that role in 2013, age having begun to take its toll on a good guy with a fun idea and the ability to make it work. In fact, it worked so well that the NFL had to create the “Salata Rule,” to prevent teams continually passing in the final round to try and get the last pick.
That happened following the 1979 draft after the Los Angeles Rams passed on the next to the last pick to force the Steelers, who held the final selection, to pick ahead of them. Pittsburgh passed, too, and back and forth they went until then-commissioner Pete Rozelle finally stepped in and forced the two teams to settle with a coin flip. Not long after, the Salata Rule was born. It prohibits any team from trying to pass on its final pick to make its eventual pick the last selection and thus a more relevant Mr. Irrelevant.
Ironically, the 1979 Steelers won in more ways than a coin flip. Not only did they get the publicity that came with drafting “Mr. Irrelevant” but they got a player who proved not to be irrelevant at all. Tyrone McGriff, a guard out of Florida A&M, went on to make the 1980 All-Rookie team and play three seasons in Pittsburgh before jumping to the upstart USFL’s Michigan Panthers, where he played on their 1983 USFL championship team.
Irrelevant, Tyrone McGriff was not.
Neither was Paul Salata, a guy who wanted to have some fun and give a kid from whom little was expected in the NFL at least a week to feel like a star. A few Mr. Irrelevants did more than that, including Marty Moore, who became the first to play in a Super Bowl when he was a special team stalwart for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.
Perhaps the most relevant Mr. Irrelevant of all is Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ kicker Ryan Succup, who captured the award in 2009. He immediately became a record-setting kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, passing Hall-of-Famer Jan Stenerud’s record for most field goals by a rookie and for highest field-goal percentage by a rookie (86.2 percent).
Last season Succup scored seven points for the Bucs in Super Bowl LV to become the second Mr. Irrelevant to win a Super Bowl ring and the first to be on the active roster. Giants’ fullback Jim Finn was the first but was on injured reserve all season and never played a down, which is the definition of really being irrelevant.