By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Not far from the John Wayne Airport, tucked in the back of a small office park where a broken-down Yugo has sat rusty and dormant for years, an aging man still plots the attacks of a farcical mind.
Paul Salata is 81 now. He does not hear well, and sometimes things like memory can seem a little fuzzy. But there he was Sunday afternoon in New York, standing on the stage at the NFL draft, just as he has done for years, announcing the last pick of the weekend, No. 252 overall, the one on whom is bestowed the dubious honor of being "Mr. Irrelevant." This time, it is David Vobora, a linebacker from Idaho.
Then he will go home and take Vobora on the ride of his life.
In the sober world of the NFL, where every draft choice is treated like a cabinet appointment, Salata is a rare sprinkle of fun: a lifelong practical joker who can't resist the absurd. Like the time he hired a 100-piece marching band to come down the street and serenade his wife on her birthday, bringing her to tears not when she heard the music but after he invited the entire band to their house for dinner.
And since 1976 he has turned what should be a forgotten selection, a player more likely than not to be cut by the middle of training camp, and made him feel like a king. For six days here in late June, Vobora will be treated to the same outlandish extravaganza as the men before him.
This includes: an arrival news conference (which it is fair to say probably will be Vobora's lone NFL news conference), a VIP banquet Salata affectionately calls The Lowsman, a tailgate party and a trip to Disneyland. Mr. Irrelevant also receives his own trophy, a golden image of a football player looking away as the ball drops from his hands.
"We want the player to feel like a king for a week because he may never be that ever again," said Salata's daughter, Melanie Salata Fitch.
Depending on the player and his interests, other activities might be incorporated, like a golf outing or a pub crawl. All of this is organized by Salata Fitch, who patiently indulges her father's frivolity.
And what if the player doesn't golf?
They play miniature golf.
And what if he doesn't drink?
"We provide a designated drinker," Salata Fitch replied, adding the Irrelevant Week celebration has seen "several Mormon players who were no longer Mormons when they returned home."
Once Paul Salata was an athlete, a star at Southern California who looked as regal as Frank Gifford in his Trojans uniform. He played baseball and ran track, but he loved being a football player most of all, a wide receiver who played briefly in the NFL for the Colts and 49ers. Then when he was done with football, he moved to Orange County and sold rock and gravel for decades, eventually becoming something of a local business celebrity -- involved in area civic groups and charities.
Yet he also possessed this odd side -- a desire to turn any moment, no matter how serious, into a prank.
There was the time he managed to convince former President Gerald Ford to play a round of golf for charity. Imagine how bewildered Ford became when Salata sent him to the tee at the 18th hold and told the president to play the course backward. Then there was the issue of the members of Ford's foursome who kept dropping out every hole as a different group joined in. It tuned out Salata, realizing there was cachet in playing golf with Gerald Ford, had sold slots in the president's foursome at $20 a hole so dozens could say they had the honor of playing golf with President Ford.
"My dad's humor is very Don Rickles," Salata Fitch said.
All you have to do is walk through the back of the Irrelevant office here to get a sense of that. Just look at the helmets. One rests in concrete attached to a sign that reads "Jimmy Hoffa's helmet." There's an American Airlines helmet complete with landing strip and lights and also a football helmet remade to look like Cinderella's castle.
"When we started this we were just trying to make sports fun," Paul Salata said one Saturday morning, while sitting at his desk. As teams in the mid-1970s began throwing bigger money and greater acclaim at the top draft choices, he wondered about the guys at the bottom, the ones like himself who would not have big NFL careers. What if he could celebrate the last guy on the list?
He called the league's commissioner, Pete Rozelle, an old friend from Los Angeles, and wondered if the NFL would support such a thing. Rozelle, who always adored a good public relations ploy, loved the idea. And soon Mr. Irrelevant was born.
Salata came up with the idea of irrelevant when reading news reports of former UCLA and NBA star Bill Walton taking part in a sit-in on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in the 1970s. When someone sarcastically asked Walton why he just didn't get a job, the player replied "it's not relevant."
Salata scoffed as he thought of this.
"If what they were doing was relevant, the rest of us are irrelevant," he said.
Of course there are some who would say holding a week of parades and banquets for a football player who no one has ever heard of and who will probably be out of a job in a few weeks is about as irrelevant as it gets. Salata doesn't disagree. But since most people seem to have fun with his week, he keeps pushing forward.
Since most seventh-round picks barely make it through training camps, the last choice usually does not make a roster. And the list of Irrelevant successes is limited. Marty Moore, Mr. Irrelevant 1994, played seven seasons with New England as a linebacker. And 2000's Irrelevant, Mike Green, started as a defensive back for the Bears for parts of six seasons.
The bulk of Mr. Irrelevants appear to have a good time. Only once did Salata and his daughter get a player who failed to enjoy the event. Salata Fitch said the player "had a bad attitude" from the moment she contacted him on draft day and hated pretty much every event they held in his honor. At the end of the week he told her to not make an attempt to contact her.
Others, however, have been more open to the idea of irrelevance. A few years ago, Mr. Irrelevant, Tevita Ofahengaue, a pick by the Cardinals, asked Salata Fitch if he could bring his family. She agreed, thinking his mother or a brother or sister might join him. Instead Ofahengaue, who was born in Tonga, brought more than 60 people. Fortunately the host hotel agreed to donate a floor of rooms.
But the worst experience might have come in 2005 when fun met Patriots Coach Bill Belichick. This did not go well. New England had taken tight end Andy Stokes from William Penn with the last selection, and almost immediately negotiations between Salata Fitch and the Patriots soured. Belichick did not care much for Irrelevant Week. In fact, he appeared to think the whole thing was absurd.
The coach declared Stokes could not partake in a full Irrelevant Week because the Patriots would have a mandatory team workout while the celebrations for Stokes were going on. So Salata Fitch went to work to save everything. She cut the week in half and moved the banquet to the very last night, arranging for a police escort from the hotel in Orange County up to the airport in Los Angeles. And then after putting Stokes on an all-night flight to Boston, she had another police escort race him to the stadium in Foxborough, Mass., so he could be there in time for practice.
Which he was.
That is if there were a practice. The gates to the facility were locked, and no one was around.
Salata Fitch is still enraged about that one and suggests if the Patriots ever held the final pick, she and her father would just go back one selection and hold an Irrelevant Week for the next-to-last player chosen in the draft.
Fortunately for them this did not happen on Sunday as Paul Salata stood before the draft and made Vobora a celebrity he never thought he was destined to become.