Sports

For One Man, the N.F.L. Draft’s ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ Meant a Lot

LAS VEGAS — Only the hardiest of N.F.L. fans stick around to watch the end of the third and final day of the draft. To Paul Salata, it was pure joy.

In 1976, Salata, who played three seasons of pro football in the 1940s and ’50s, created Mr. Irrelevant, a tongue-in-cheek award for the last player chosen in the draft. His motivation was simple: He wanted to celebrate a player who might otherwise be overlooked.

Salata, who grew up in poverty and later built a successful sewer construction business, understood that underdogs needed a pat on the back.

After playing for the All-American Football Conference’s San Francisco 49ers in 1949 and 1950, Salata maintained ties to the franchise as the league merged with the N.F.L. In the 1970s, he manned the phones at the draft, then annually held in a New York hotel conference room where teams would call the players as they were chosen. There were no fans or television cameras. It was at those drafts that Salata struck on the idea of Mr. Irrelevant.

Pete Rozelle, the league’s commissioner and an old friend of Salata’s from California, liked his idea, and starting in 1976, the last player drafted would be crowned Mr. Irrelevant. Though ESPN had started televising and hosting players at the draft in person by the 1980s, the last pick was unlikely to still be there in person. Salata would hold up a jersey with the three-digit number that represented the last pick of the draft.

For the next 45 years, Salata and his friends would fete each Mr. Irrelevant after the draft in Newport Beach, Calif., with a banquet, parade and assorted activities like surfing lessons and visits to Disneyland.

Salata’s award added a rare dose of humor and serendipity to the draft, where players nervously await their fates and fans pin their hopes on next season’s rookies. And it allowed Salata to celebrate payers who overcame the odds to get drafted by an N.F.L. team.

This year, for the first time since he created Mr. Irrelevant, Salata was not around to witness his creation. He died last October at 94.

Paul Salata played for the A.A.F.C.’s San Francisco 49ers in 1949 and 1950.Credit…Bridget Bennett for The New York Times

Salata’s daughter, Melanie Fitch, carried on his tradition when the 262nd and final pick was announced on Saturday. She’s had practice: In 2015, she began announcing the picks because the trips to the draft host cities became too arduous for her father.

Salata would watch the draft from home in Newport Beach, and of course welcome Mr. Irrelevant when he got there.

“He’s not here but we’re still going,” Fitch said in a phone interview. “He built such a strong base, so we won’t lose any momentum in terms of the planning and celebration. Mr. Irrelevant will be as honorable as ever.”

The N.F.L. honored Salata before the final pick in the draft on Saturday, showing photos of Salata on the video screens above the main stage in Las Vegas.

Fitch was accompanied by her daughter Alix, who carried a No. 262 jersey as the two women walked to the lectern. In an especially poignant twist, the 49ers had the last pick in the draft. They used it to select Brock Purdy, a quarterback from Iowa State.

Fitch had been wary because the pick could have been traded to a team with less connection to Salata.

“I’m just concerned the 49ers will trade the pick and I’ll be wearing a 49ers jersey and have to say that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen Mr. Irrelevant,” she said with a chuckle ahead of the draft.

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