Going into last year's NFL draft, football gurus believed the University of Idaho's David Vobora was a possible mid- to late-round pick. He was a bit undersized for a linebacker (225 lbs.) and played at a college not known for producing NFL players, but he had smarts, and he ran fast. "I knew the draft was a pretty unpredictable science, but I was hoping some team would select me," says Vobora, 23.
On the second day of the draft, when the middle and late rounds are held, Vobora, his family and a group of his Idaho teammates gathered around a television at the University of Idaho campus in Moscow, Idaho, and waited for Vobora's name to be announced. And waited … and waited.
Suddenly it became apparent that Vobora might not be picked at all. He stepped out of the room to talk to his agent on the phone, hatching a back-up plan in case he wasn't drafted (he was going to try out for teams as a free agent). Then the call-waiting beep went off on his cellphone, and he picked it up. It was the St. Louis Rams' then-head coach, Scott Linehan, who told him the Rams were about to select him. What Vobora didn't know was that he was about to become famous, at least to a small group of dedicated NFL junkies.
At that moment, across the country, Paul Salata, an 82-year-old man in a light gray suit and wide glasses, ambled up to the podium at the NFL draft headquarters in Radio City Music Hall in New York. A former NFL player for the San Francisco 49ers and a lifelong fan of the underdog, Salata was there to perform the same duty he had for three decades: Announcing the name of the last player picked in the NFL draft, a man who had come to be known as "Mr. Irrelevant" and who would participate in the celebration Salata founded, known as Irrelevant Week.
Salata held up a small piece of paper and proclaimed that with pick number 252, the last in the 2008 NFL draft, the St. Louis Rams were taking David Vobora. "I think he called me a defensive back, and he butchered my last name," says Vobora. "But that was alright." Vobora, after all, had just been transformed into a minor celebrity, the final footnote to every NFL draft. He would forever be a Mr. Irrelevant.
Salata's daughter, Melanie Salata Fitch, now the chief executive of Irrelevant Week and its spokeswoman, swears that, contrary to what most believe, the term "Mr. Irrelevant" is not meant as a slight to the player. Rather, the moniker is meant to shout out to the world that the position in which a player is drafted is neither here nor there. It is unimportant, it is immaterial – it is, in short, irrelevant.
The truth is that the player selected last in the NFL draft has only a slim chance of actually playing in the NFL. Of the 33 Mr. Irrelevants, only eight actually played in a game. Most were cut before their first season began.
There have been some notable exceptions. Bill Kenney, who was drafted by Miami in 1978, went on to play nine years for the Kansas City Chiefs and made the Pro Bowl in 1983. Marty Moore, a linebacker drafted by the New England Patriots in 1994, is the only Mr. Irrelevant to play in a Super Bowl. Jim Finn, drafted by Chicago in 1999, played for the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants (though, in classic Mr. Irrelevant form, he fumbled his first NFL carry). Mike Green played defensive back for the Bears from 2000 to 2005.
And Vobora? He played in eight games last year for the Rams and even started one, becoming the first Mr. Irrelevant in 14 years to accomplish that feat in his rookie season.
The "award" was Salata's brainchild. Back in 1976, he petitioned then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to host a mock celebration in Newport Beach, Calif., for the last player picked in the draft. Rozelle, ever mindful of marketing opportunities for the NFL, gave it his blessing.
Tickets are sold for Irrelevant Week events throughout the week, with all money raised going to charities, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Red Cross, or for local little league uniforms (to date, Irrelevant Week has given away $1 million).
"Dad came from a poor background and had made the NFL as a long shot," says Fitch. "He was always an underdog himself, so he thought, 'Let's get this guy out here and have some fun.'"
And fun is the operative word. In late June of last year, Vobora hopped on a plane to California to take part in Irrelevant Week. "I had no idea what was in store," he says. During the flight, the captain announced to the passengers that Mr. Irrelevant was on board; Vobora received a warm round of applause. When he landed at John Wayne International Airport, he was greeted by dozens of cheering fans. "I felt like I'd won the Super Bowl," he says. Then he was whisked away in a Lamborghini.
Throughout the week, he was presented with various tchotchkes: a year's supply of toothbrushes, some combs and a flag with his picture on it. He played golf. He went to a Los Angeles Dodgers game and to Disneyland. He hung out at a beach house with Mr. Irrelevant "groupies" (read: young women). He watched black-and-white movies with Hugh Hefner and some Bunnies at the Playboy Mansion. He was feted at an award ceremony and presented with the Lowsman Trophy (as opposed to the Heisman Trophy), which depicts a football player fumbling a ball. "I didn't get much sleep that week," Vobora says.
The week-long celebration has been host to some odd occurrences. When told he could bring along his family, Tevita Ofahengaue, drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2001, showed up with 60 family members from his native Tonga, all of whom Fitch had to accommodate. "We now have a 'Tevita rule,' which says a player can only bring one family member," says Fitch.
Relationships have crumbled. Cam Quayle, a tight end selected by the Baltimore Ravens in 1998, arrived with his fiancé, who he was supposed to marry two weeks later. But she turned out to be a wet blanket, nagging him and complaining the entire time. Quayle's mother, who was also there, told him that if his fiancé wouldn't support him now, she never would. Quayle broke off the engagement. "I saw him a few years later," says Fitch. "He had married someone else and seemed really happy."
Matt Elliott, 1992's Mr. Irrelevant, borrowed Fitch's car, then left it on the side of Highway 405 when it ran out of gas. "What a ding-dong,'" says Fitch.
The first Mr. Irrelevant, Kelvin Kirk, a wide receiver picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976, missed his flight to Irrelevant Week and needed a stand-in the first day.
And there have been grumpy coaches. When New England selected Andy Stokes with the last pick in 2005, tight-fisted Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't want him to participate in the events at all, then insisted Stokes make it back to Foxboro, Mass., for an early-morning practice. Fitch rearranged the entire week's schedule to fit Belichick's demands and flew Stokes back on a red-eye to Boston, only to find that there was no practice.
Fitch was furious, but she says Belichick has "already had his karma come back at him," referring to the 2007 "spygate" episode in which the coach was caught cheating. Stokes never even made the team.
This year's Mr. Irrelevant will be announced sometime late in the day April 26. Vobora's advice to the soon-to-be-deemed-irrelevant? "Live it up and get some rest before you go out there."
The Kansas City Chiefs have the honor of the last pick in this year's draft. "That means there will be two Mr. Irrelevants in Missouri," says Vobora. "I don't know if the state is big enough for both of us."
Five to note: