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Paul Salata, Champion of the N.F.L.’s ‘Irrelevant,’ Dies at 94

The N.F.L. is sometimes called the No Fun League because of its stern marketing and penchant for penalizing players. But every so often …

The N.F.L. is sometimes called the No Fun League because of its stern marketing and penchant for penalizing players.

But every so often, something entirely serendipitous and organic bubbles to the top and becomes an eccentric N.F.L. institution.

Paul Salata created one of those traditions: Mr. Irrelevant.

In the 1970s, Mr. Salata, a wide receiver who played a handful of seasons of both college and pro football during the Truman administration, approached Pete Rozelle, the league’s commissioner at the time, about honoring the last player taken in the college draft.

Mr. Salata had a soft spot for underdogs, having grown up poor in Los Angeles before becoming a successful businessman.

He wanted to celebrate the unheralded honor of being picked last because players at the end of the line rarely get noticed — even though one might have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of being picked by an N.F.L. team. Mr. Rozelle blessed the idea, and Mr. Irrelevant was born.

“Everyone who is drafted works hard, and some of them don’t get any recognition,” Mr. Salata told The New York Times in 2017. “They do their work and should be noticed.”

Mr. Salata died at his home in Newport Beach, Calif., on Oct. 16, one day shy of his 95th birthday.

Starting in 1976, Mr. Salata and his friends in Orange County raised money to fly the last player picked in the draft to Southern California, where he would receive a champion’s welcome. In the years since, the players — some of whom who had never been to California — have been paraded through Newport Beach, taken to Disneyland and feted at a banquet, where they received the “Lowsman Trophy,” which depicts a player fumbling a football.

Mr. Salata and his team also fulfilled some of the players’ requests, including surfing lessons, visits to the Playboy Mansion and being a guest announcer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

Many Mr. Irrelevants never made it past their first season or even past their first training camp, but a handful have stuck around in the N.F.L. In February the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Ryan Succop became the first Mr. Irrelevant to score in and win a Super Bowl. He had been drafted last in 2009 by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The first Mr. Irrelevant, Kelvin Kirk, thought people were poking fun at him. His new boss, Art Rooney, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, had to convince him otherwise. But most Mr. Irrelevants have embraced the humor of being picked last and have loved joining such an exclusive club. A few have returned to California years later to relive their moment of glory and meet Mr. Salata again.

“It’s something they can’t take away from me,” said Tevita Ofahengaue, a tight end picked last in 2001 by the Arizona Cardinals. “It’s like the ‘Rudy’ story.”

Mr. Salata announced the winner of the Mr. Irrelevant award at the 2013 N.F.L. draft, with his son-in-law, Ed Fitch, standing by. The South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham won the distinction when the Indianapolis Colts made him the last pick in the draft.Credit…Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

In an unscripted way, fans have also embraced Mr. Irrelevant, ever since ESPN began televising the draft in 1979, demystifying and popularizing the once-obscure process.At the end of the three-day event, filled with the mind-numbing reading of names, the handful of draft devotees, known as “Draftniks,” still at the theater would rush the stage to cheer Mr. Salata as he walked onstage to announce the last pick.

Unlike the first picks, who have almost always been on hand to mug for the cameras and hug the commissioner, Mr. Irrelevant has never been onstage. No one can predict which player will be taken last, so no one in the later rounds of the draft shows up in advance. A couple of months later, though, Mr. Salata and his friends would make sure that player was the center of attention.

Paul Thomas Salata was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 17, 1926, the second of seven sons born to Chetko and Melania (Miskovich) Salata, Serbian immigrants who met and married in California. His father was a sewer contractor who died after a car accident when Paul was 12, leaving his mother to raise the boys. The eight of them, plus one grandmother and one cousin, lived in a two-bedroom home. The boys all worked from a young age.

Mr. Salata is survived by a daughter, Melanie Fitch; a son, Bradley; his second wife, Carolyn Salata; his brother, George; and two granddaughters. His first wife, Beverly, died in 2003.

Paul Salata was a wide receiver at the University of Southern California in 1944, 1946 and 1947. He caught a touchdown in the 1945 Rose Bowl before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was also an infielder on the U.S.C. team that won the College World Series in 1948, and he played one season in the minor leagues in 1950.

Like most of the Mr. Irrelevants, Mr. Salata had a largely unremarkable career. He played 23 games for the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1950s, as well as two years in Canada, before leaving the game in 1953.

He also had a few moments in Hollywood, with minor roles in movies like “Stalag 17” and “Angels in the Outfield.” In “The Ten Commandments,” he fought Charlton Heston and lost, leading him to joke often that he was so old he was beaten up by Moses.

As his dreams of stardom faded, Mr. Salata went into his father’s line of work, sewer construction; helped start the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation; and focused on turning Irrelevant Week into an offbeat ritual.

“My mantra has been to make the ‘F’ in N.F.L. mean fun,” said Rich Eisen, a longtime host on the N.F.L. Network who often interviewed Mr. Salata during the draft. “He was perfect in our studio because he created such a quirky tradition.”

N.F.L. teams soon figured out that drafting Mr. Irrelevant was free publicity. In 1979, the Los Angeles Rams intentionally passed on the next-to-last pick to force the Steelers, who had the last pick, to choose first. Mr. Rozelle had to intervene and let the Steelers pick last. Thus the “Salata Rule,” which prevented teams from angling to pick last, was born.

One year, Ms. Fitch said, when the Raiders had the last pick, Jerry Davis, the brother of Al Davis, the team’s owner, joked to Mr. Salata that the Raiders were going to pick the player who had the most complicated last name so Mr. Salata would have trouble pronouncing it.

As Mr. Salata slowed in recent years, Ms. Fitch took a bigger role in keeping alive her father’s quixotic brainchild, something she plans to continue doing.

“He always thought everyone on the team should be treated equally,” she said, “and it’s irrelevant whether you’re the first one in the draft or the last.”

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