- Doug Williams
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Each goes by the name Mr. Irrelevant, but no two are alike.
So when Irrelevant Week is held annually in Newport Beach, Calif., to honor the last player taken in the NFL draft, many of the activities are tailored to fit the guest of honor.
While all participate in the Arrival Party and Lowsman Banquet -- where each receives the opposite-of-the-Heisman Lowsman Trophy (depicting a player in mid-fumble) -- players can decide what else they want to do.
One asked to go clubbing in Los Angeles with Paris Hilton. Another chose to spend time with his family and sleep extra hours in his soft hotel bed. Others, who’d never been to California, wanted to go Jet Skiing or sailing, play golf on a course overlooking the Pacific or meet their sports heroes.
In 2008, David Vobora, a linebacker from Idaho chosen by the Rams, wanted to see the Playboy Mansion and meet the women from “The Girls Next Door” reality TV series. After an evening that included dinner with Hugh Hefner, hanging with “The Girls,” getting a tour of the mansion and sharing Hef’s movie night, Vobora told one reporter it was “a slice of heaven.”
And that’s pretty much been the goal of Irrelevant Week since it began in 1976: to treat the last as if he were first.
Each April, when Mr. Irrelevant is drafted in New York, Irrelevant Week CEO Melanie Salata Fitch is right there to get his requests for Irrelevant Week (usually is held in June).
“I say, ‘Hey, congratulations’ and 'What do you like?' and 'What do you eat?' and 'What have you always dreamed about?' and I start designing events,” she says.
After 37 Irrelevant Weeks, she’s confident the players have had a great time. How could they not? Her mission is to treat each “like a king.”
If he likes spare ribs, they get him spare ribs. If he likes sushi, they bring in a flock of sushi chefs. If he “wants to play beach volleyball with cute girls,” she sets it up.
“It’s like, ‘Gee, darn,’ how could you not like it?” she asks, laughing.
Only once, really, have the limits of Irrelevant Week’s generosity been tested. That was in 2001, when BYU tight end Tevita Ofahengaue, a Tonga-born Hawaiian, was drafted last by the Arizona Cardinals.
“We said, ‘Hey, bring your family out,’ and he brought 63 people,” Fitch recalls, laughing. “So I’m trying to get hotel rooms for them, and it was like the Kingdom of Tonga had landed. After that year we made a rule, called the Ofahengaue Rule, and Mr. Irrelevant’s supposed to have one guest. We haven’t really held to that, but we’ve held it to less than 63.”
This year’s Irrelevant Week XXXVIII is tentatively set to kick off on June 18. It will honor the Indianapolis Colts’ Justice Cunningham, a tight end from South Carolina who was the 254th pick. Because Cunningham has been to California only once -- without ever going near the water -- Fitch says he’ll get as much surfing, swimming and boating as he can handle.
“His favorite food is hot wings,” Fitch says. “Hot, hot wings. So he will be provided with several servings of them throughout the week.”
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Mr. Irrelevant and Irrelevant Week were created by Paul Salata, 86, a former USC and NFL receiver who wanted to do something to celebrate the underdog. He successfully pitched the idea to then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
“My dad had a motto: ‘Doing something nice for someone for no reason,’” Fitch says. “And so he wanted to randomly do something nice for someone because he had played football and thought, ‘Let’s honor the last guy. Let’s have that be our random guy.’”
Since the first Mr. Irrelevant in 1976, Salata’s nonprofit Irrelevant Week organization and its sponsors have paid for the player (and family members) to come to Newport Beach, be treated like royalty for several days and in the process help raise money for charities.
The first Mr. Irrelevant was Dayton wide receiver Kelvin Kirk, taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 487th pick of a marathon 17 rounds. His week got off to a weird start when his flight was delayed, causing him to miss the start of his news conference. In the whole spirit of irrelevance, Salata arranged for a local butcher to stand in for him, answering questions from reporters until Kirk arrived.
“We switched the guy in the middle of the press conference,” says Fitch, who has been helping her dad since Year 1.
Irrelevant Week at first was a low-key event -- “We were just goofing around in Newport Beach with the guy,” Fitch says -- but it’s now a multiday parade of activity with buy-in from the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses that have helped raise more than $1 million for charity through tickets for the Lowsman Banquet and other events.
The week begins with the Arrival Party, which Fitch refers to as “the showering of gifts.”
“He gets hundreds of gifts from the community,” she says. They have included clothes, food, trip tickets, golf clubs, luggage and a puppy to signify Mr. Irrelevant’s underdog status.
Usually, too, there’s some kind of theme. Last year, Colts 2012 draftee Chandler Harnish, a quarterback, was greeted by a pony wearing a Colts blanket. In 1983, new New York Giants running back John Tuggle of Cal -- who played in the Golden Bears’ miracle, lateral-filled victory over Stanford in 1982 -- was serenaded by trombonist Gary Tyrell, the Stanford bandster who was run over on the final touchdown.
The arrival party at a beach resort includes cheerleaders, live music and several hundred people waving signs and yelling.
“It’s shock and awe,” Fitch says.
The Lowsman Banquet is more formal, with 500 guests, celebrity athletes, the trophy presentation and a roast of the guest of honor.
“He also gets a watch from the NFL and a letter from the commissioner that says, ‘Good luck -- you may never make it in the NFL, but here’s a watch anyway,’” Fitch says.
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Paul Salata is still very much involved in the whole process, and for the past nine years has been invited on stage at Radio City Music Hall to announce the selection of the last player and show off a triple-digit jersey in the team’s colors with “Mr. Irrelevant” on it.
Salata says Irrelevant Week has been good for the players who face long odds of making their team -- though many have -- and good for the league, which generates interest from it.
“Thirty-eight years,” he says. “That’s something.”
Salata, who was a 10th-round pick of the Steelers in 1951, says the whole concept was something he thought would be fun and shines a light on players who weren’t stars, just like him.
He admits that not everybody has embraced the idea of being called irrelevant.
“Not all of them thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “But they thanked us that we were recognizing the underdog.”