UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Paul Salata’s vindication: Purdy definitely ‘noticed’

The late Paul Salata would likely be flashing a wry grin if he were still around and watching Mr. Irrelevant of 2022.

That’s Brock Purdy, formerly of Iowa State. 

All he’s done is quarterback the San Francisco 49ers to eight straight victories to put his team in the National Football League’s National Conference championship game next Sunday.

“Mr. Irrelevant”—the moniker, not Brock Purdy—is Salata’s creation.

Back in 1976, well before the NFL’s annual college draft reached the proportions of today’s over-hyped, made-for-TV-extravaganza, Salata sought and received Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s support for attaching that nickname to the last player selected each year.

It caught on, and today the designation is accompanied by a unique measure of celebrity hoopla.

Each year the new Mr. Irrelevant and his family are offered a week-long summer visit to Newport Beach, California, including a trip to Disneyland. And he’s presented with the Lowsman Trophy, which mimics the Heisman but with a player fumbling the ball. 

Salata, who died one day before his 95th birthday, on October 21, 2021, was himself a pro football player of some relevance between 1945 and the early 1950s.

A wide receiver at Southern Cal, Salata scored a touchdown in the 1945 Rose Bowl. He also scored the 49ers’ final touchdown in the All-America Football Conference and their first after the team moved into the NFL. Yes, today’s 49ers of Brock Purdy notoriety.

After a 23-game career in the NFL, Salata played in the Canadian Football League and, in 1952 with the Calgary Stampeders, was a league all-star. 

After retirement from football, he had minor roles in several movies, including “The Ten Commandments,” in which he fought Charlton Heston and lost. (In later life, he joked that he was so old, he’d once been beaten up by Moses.) 

Twenty years after his Hollywood bout with Heston, he conceived “Mr. Irrelevant.”

The Broncos have had one Mr. Irrelevant in their 63-year history: quarterback Chad Kelly, taken last from the University of Mississippi in 2018.

Nephew of Buffalo Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, who took the Bills to four Super Bowls (but never won one), Chad Kelly played one regular-season snap for Denver. On October 14, 2018, he took a knee with 11 seconds left in the first half of a 23-20 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. 

Released 11 days later, Chad Kelly never played another down in the NFL. But in 2022, as their backup quarterback, he rallied the Toronto Argonauts to a 24-23 victory over Winnipeg to win the 109th Grey Cup, the CFL’s championship, after their starter was injured in the fourth quarter.

Like Chad Kelly, most “Mr. Irrelevants” go on to nondescript NFL careers, though a few have played in the Super Bowl. Of them all, best-known is placekicker Ryan Succop, who started with Kansas City, has lasted 14 seasons and, in SB LV on Feb. 7, 2021, kicked a field goal and four TD conversions in Tampa Bay’s 31-9 victory over his former team.

The 49ers’ Purdy could be the most successful of them all.

The 262nd player chosen in the ’22 draft, he was Iowa State’s man under center for four seasons, compiling a 31-20 record, passing for 12,170 yards and 81 touchdowns, and playing in a bowl game every year, including the 2021 Fiesta Bowl when he was voted the offensive most valuable player in a 34-17 victory over Oregon.  

All of that experience probably explains why 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan (Mike’s son) has called him, “the most poised rookie I’ve ever had.”

Purdy was third-string when San Francisco began the 2022 season last September. 

Pressed into service against the Dolphins when Jimmy Garoppolo went down early in the 49ers’ 12th game, Purdy became the first Mr. Irrelevant to pass for a touchdown in a regular-season NFL game—one of two that Sunday—and led San Francisco to a 33-17 victory. (Garoppolo had taken over in Game Two when starter Trey Lance was lost for the season.)

Purdy followed with five straight wins as the starter, and SF finished 14-4 and the NFC’s second seed in the postseason.  

Through eight games, including the first two rounds of the playoffs, Purdy has passed for 1,854 yards and 16 touchdowns, completing two-thirds of his passes with only three interceptions in 220 attempts. He’s also run for two touchdowns and has been sacked only five times.

When Paul Salata was asked why he wanted to institute the “Mr. Irrelevant” recognition, he said:

“Everyone who is drafted works hard, and some of them don’t get any recognition. They do their work and should be noticed.”

Safe to say that Mr. Irrelevant of 2022 is being noticed.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.