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Giving 'Mr. Irrelevant' the ball lets NFL play on lighter side


Life, under any and all circumstances, should have its pleasant interludes. A case in point, a rather noteworthy example, is what happened to the last player taken in the last NFL draft -- No. 241 out of 241. He became more than an afterthought. A hero of sorts. An enviable position, as it turned out.

The Ravens appropriately traded down specifically to pick Cameron Quayle, a tight end from Weber State. This immediately assured Quayle the ignominious distinction of being anchor man in the draft. It evolved into more fun than a trip to the circus. Quayle became Mr. Irrelevant -- the name given to the tail-end choice in the annual selection process, which led to his being the center of attention for a full week of festivities in Newport Beach, Calif.

Not only Quayle, but his parents, fiancee, two of four brothers and their wives, a 3-year-old nephew and three college teammates were able to partake of this convoluted celebration. And all because he was dead last in the draft.

To understand the reasons for making a celebrity out of such an Quayle almost forgotten prospect, or suspect, it's necessary to understand the bizarre, imaginative and extraordinary mind of Paul Salata, an enormously successful businessman in Newport Beach, who once played for the Baltimore Colts and caught 45 passes in only seven games during the 1950 season.

Salata, a standout in the 1945 Rose Bowl for the University of Southern California, became an actor of considerable stature. Paul Douglas, Janet Leigh and Keenan Wynn played behind him in a film, "Angels in the Outfield." Earlier, for a role in "Stalag 17," he drew raves but, unfortunately, the breaks went against him and he was passed over for Academy Award acclaim.

Salata also had been an outfielder in the St. Louis Browns' minor-league system, which accounted for his ability to catch a football. Anything he could reach was a completed pass. "There have been a lot of great receivers, but I include Salata in the front row," said Y. A. Tittle, a Hall of Fame quarterback. "I heard a Hall of Fame selector say Salata's hands were the equal of Don Hutson, Tom Fears and Raymond Berry. I could hardly disagree."

With this for a football identity, Salata got the idea in 1975 to ask NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle if he could put on a party honoring the last man taken in the draft. "I called him, explained what I had in mind," recalled Salata, "and he quickly answered, 'Count us in.' No one appreciated a good time more than Pete and he realized, smart as he was, that this was the kind of a thing that would bring favorable attention to the league."

Now Cam Quayle, who reports to the Ravens' training camp site today, is Mr. Irrelevant XXIII. Quayle looks back on the experience with special fondness, after surviving an entire week of put-downs, facetious insults and playful denunciations as the gathering laughed with him. Quayle fit right into the deprecating demonstration and says it was something he'll never forget. "It was a riot," he reported. "A vacation of a lifetime."

At the arrival party, he was dropped off behind a hotel and, after a half-hour wait, was picked up by a long limousine, bedecked by American flags on the fenders and bumpers. Men wearing black suits and dark glasses walked along with the car. A sign read: "Quayle for President."

Dan Quayle, a former vice president, wasn't there but sent greetings to the other Quayle, even though they aren't related. Instead of the Heisman Trophy banquet, it was called the Lowsman Trophy banquet, attended by a capacity audience.

The Mr. Irrelevant blast lasted seven days. The "dishonored guest" received close to 150 gifts, including golf shirts, jackets, jerseys, helmets, caps, pens, pencils, an official NFL watch from commissioner Paul Tagliabue and a $3,000 Rolex from Barr Jewelers of Newport Beach.

To get it all back to his home in Ogden, Utah, an official of United Parcel Service saw that it was packed, shipped and delivered as a courtesy to Mr. Irrelevant. The program of entertainment included a day and night at Disneyland, the Irrelevant Olympics at the Santa Ana National Sports Grill, the Beercan Regatta & Burger Luau at the Balboa Yacht Club and a swim-as-he-struggled surfing lesson in the waves off Newport Beach.

The Anaheim Angels gave him two broken bats and let him drag the infield with the grounds crew in the fifth inning during a game against the Texas Rangers, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd of 31,671. Salata, wife Beverly and daughter Melanie Salata Fitch, the board of directors of Irrelevant Week, were, per usual, enjoying it all.

There was a golf tournament, obviously called the Irrelevant Open, where players teed off with putters, tried swinging blindfolded and hit light bulbs instead of golf balls. Entering into the same spirit, the Balboa Ferry sent a one-way ticket and police chief Dave Snowden of Costa Mesa, Calif., delivered a certificate for a free lunch in jail.

John Hall, retired columnist of the Los Angeles Times who enjoys the Irrelevant Week mischief, calls Salata the "champ dreamer in putting on the strangest celebration known to humankind and he topped every lowlight/highlight/dimlight bit of madness that's gone before."

But there was something else, which Salata and associates take an oath they could not have pre-arranged. It was a twist of pure coincidence. On the day Quayle and his entourage were leaving from John Wayne International Airport, a horse race at Hollywood Park was won by a 2-year-old by the name of, implausible as it seems, Irrelevant, paying $55.60.

The record shows that in the previous 22 years of irrelevancy, five Mr. Irrelevants have made the grade in the NFL. Two are still playing, namely Marty Moore of the New England Patriots and Matt Elliott of the Atlanta Falcons. Now comes Cam Quayle, who gets a similar chance.

Salata, covering all eventualities, says every NFL team, Ravens included, have already presented Quayle a jersey with his name on it. This means if he gets passed over in Baltimore, he can always put on a jersey of any team and go join them, thanks to being Mr. Irrelevant.

For the first time, Salata introduced the last player in the baseball draft, catcher Lucas Gruner of Mayfair High School in Long Beach, Calif. He was picked No. 1,445 by the Arizona Diamondbacks so he, too, was honored by a man who, like himself, played baseball at the professional level.

Salata once knocked himself out running into the center-field fence in San Antonio, which may be a clue as to why he acts as he does now. Unfortunately, the ball he was pursuing carried over the wall for a home run and teammates and trainers surrounded the unconscious Salata, fearing the worst after he slammed into the barrier.

He finally got up and, ultimately, lived to invent Mr. Irrelevant, where levity is the chief element of his weirdly contrived game plan. Quayle, who rarely stopped laughing, and all of Newport Beach enjoyed the lampoon -- of being irreverent to Mr. Irrelevant. Even a first-round draft choice never drew this kind of notoriety or experienced the pure joy of such a good time.

The last shall indeed be first.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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