The so-called University of Dayton football player held a press conference in front of an appreciative Southern California crowd that fully embraced him and an engrossed media contingent that soaked up his every word.
He told them about Flyers football and the UD campus and the city of Dayton and especially how excited he was to be making his first trip to the West Coast.
There was just one little problem.
The guy had never worn a Flyers football uniform, had never set foot on the UD campus and, truth be known, he wasn’t even sure where Dayton was.
Although everyone assumed he was Kelvin Kirk, the UD receiver taken with the last pick of the 1976 NFL draft by the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, he actually was a 42-year-old butcher from a Safeway Market right there in California.
As NFL draft stories go, few can top this one.
Paul Salata recounted part of it by phone from Radio City Music Hall on Thursday evening, just before this year’s three-day draft proceedings were to begin at the New York City landmark. The 85-year-old Salata — a Southern Cal football standout in the 1940s who played in the NFL and CFL and later had bit parts in several movies — is the guy who helped pull off that ruse 36 years ago.
But from that little fib has grown a much more unvarnished and enduring truth: America loves an underdog story.
Every year, beginning with 1976, the last player chosen in the draft — a long-odds prospect who has been dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant” by Salata — has been honored with a week of parties, parades, community events and gifts, lots and lots of gifts, in Newport Beach and surrounding Orange County, Calif.
At a lavish ceremony, often attended by Hollywood stars, sports legends and the all-supportive masses, Mr. Irrelevant is awarded the Lowsman Trophy. It looks quite a bit like the Heisman — get it? high and low — except that the football figure on top is dropping the ball.
Tonight, when the Indianapolis Colts wrap up this year’s draft with the final pick in Round 7 — the 253rd overall — Salata will step onto the stage and announce the choice.
And once the Colts finish welcoming this Last Call Candidate into the league, Salata and especially his daughter Melanie Salata Fitch, the CEO of Irrelevant Week, will get on the phone and begin helping the player plan his trip to Southern California.
“We try to tailor it to him,” Fitch said. “If his favorite car is a Lamborghini, we’ll take him around in a Lamborghini all week. We ask who his favorite actor is. His favorite actress. If it’s Will Ferrell, Halle Berry, whoever, we try to have him meet with them. If his favorite food is ribs, he’ll eat ribs. If he wants to surf, golf, whatever. He might be reluctant about all this at first, but before it’s done we want him saying, ‘Is this fun, or what.’ ”
And why do Salata, his daughter and the California folks do all this?
As it says on the letterhead of Salata’s group: “Irrelevant Week means doing something nice for someone for no reason.”
In further explaining the concept, Salata said: “It started off tongue-in-cheek, and still is in many ways, but the truth is there are a lot more people at the bottom than the top. More people are underdogs than they are chairmen of the board.”
A 5-foot-11, 175-pound receiver, Kelvin Kirk won All-City honors at Dunbar High School in the early 1970s before coming to UD.
He was the Flyers’ top pass catcher for three seasons straight, was team MVP in 1975 and though he’s now seventh on the school’s career receiving yards list with 1,676, he’s first when it comes to UD’s days as a Division I scholarship program.
It was still a bit of a surprise when the Steelers picked him in round seventeen, but that only added to Salata’s brainstorm idea.
A 10th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1951, Salata knew football. He played professionally for the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts in the old AAFC and then, when his Steelers stint fell through, he went on to an all-star season with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL, followed by another year with the Ottawa Rough Riders.
He also knew showmanship. He appeared in several movies including “Stalag 17,” “Angels in the Outfield” and “The Ten Commandments,” where he said he was a sheepherder and also Charlton Heston’s double as Moses in some action scenes.
Maybe the latter is why he knew what to do when Kirk missed his initial flight from Dayton to Southern California.
“We had three people (in Dayton) swear they’d get him on the plane: the football coach, the athletics director and the president of the university,” Salata told the Los Angeles Times back then. “And they only missed by 10 minutes.”
Expounding on that the other day, he laughed: “We had a crowd at the airport and a parade waiting so we had to do something. We had a three-hour window and that’s when someone mentioned a friend who was a butcher who they thought could do it. We got him dressed, took him to the airport, put him on the back of the convertible and he took it from there.”
Did he ever.
According to the Times, the butcher “strode boldly from the airport apron through the gate and proclaimed to the cheering crowd: ‘Thank you. It’s beautiful out here. I’ve never been to the West Coast in my life.’ ”
Along the parade route the butcher waved and blew kisses. When he passed a group of young bicycle riders, he bellowed: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink ... play football ... I love you.”
Salata said the fill-in then held his press conference — “I believe it was on the courthouse steps” — and soon Kirk did arrive from Dayton: “So we just pulled the butcher out, slupped Kelvin in and we never missed a beat.”
Although Kirk never would play for the Steelers, he had seven good seasons in the CFL and later — he was a talented artist — worked for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada. He died suddenly in 2003 — he was 49 — from an apparent heart attack while playing pick-up basketball.
“We always appreciated Kelvin,” said Salata’s daughter Melanie. “If he hadn’t embraced this whole idea and really had fun with it once he got out here, the whole thing could have fallen apart before it ever got going.”
Treated like kings
While some Mr. Irrelevants are initially hesitant about the festivities, most come around once they see how they are treated.
Melanie said other Mr. Irrelevants call them and tell them what they are in for. Then, once they get to California — often with friends and family in tow — they are treated like royalty. When Salata saw the No. 1 pick in the draft got himself a $5,000 watch a few years ago, he made sure Mr. Irrelevant got a $5,000 watch.
In all, he gets some 200 gifts dumped in his lap when he arrives.
“The National Football League, they love it, too,” Salata said. “They run a $9 billion business and this is something they don’t have to worry about. No rapes, no murders, no drugs, no trouble with the law — just common everyday people trying to do good.”
Although there are now just seven draft rounds as opposed to 17, some things have not changed, Melanie said:
“He’s still the underdog, so we try to get him to go from a zero to a hero just like he was one of the first-round guys.”
That philosophy works so well that when they had a Mr. Irrelevant alumni gathering some years ago, many of the guys — including Kirk — returned.
“Everybody had a story, but Kelvin’s was the best,” Salata said. “We pulled off a national event without the principal.
“Tell the people in Dayton thanks. They had a super representative and we loved him ... once we finally met him.”