At the end of the first NFL draft without her father, Melanie Fitch walked onto a Las Vegas stage wearing a cream suit. She lifted her hands to the crowd as seven video boards showed images celebrating the life of Paul Salata, the playful spirit who conceived the idea to honor Mr. Irrelevant, the neglected final pick of football’s annual spring bash.
It was April 30, 2022, more than six months after Salata had died one day shy of his 95th birthday. Fitch wasn’t nervous. She took over making the announcement for her dad many years earlier, and though she was emotional knowing Salata could not watch from home anymore, she had a sacred priority to pronounce the player’s name correctly. Otherwise, Mr. Irrelevant would be literal. There had been some tough ones: Tevita Ofahengaue in 2001, Cheta Ozougwu in 2011. On this day, the name printed on her card seemed tricky at first glance.
“Keeping the irrelevant tradition going,” Fitch said into the microphone that afternoon. “I’m here with my daughter, Alix, third generation of irrelevance. And we’ve saved the best till last. So we’re going to put it all on red — 49er red.”
After some banter with the booing crowd, Fitch went for it.
“So the 47th Mr. Irrelevant … with the 262nd pick of the 2022 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers select Brock Purdy, a quarterback from Iowa State.”
On Monday, the Fitch family prepared to drive 275 miles through heavy rain and wind from their Newport Beach, Calif., home to Las Vegas. They packed 49er-red No. 262 jerseys. That quarterback from Iowa State, kind and unassuming and always dressed as if he is ready to meet his girlfriend’s parents, is starting in the Super Bowl.
“Brock Purdy — it’s kind of a funny name, isn’t it?” Fitch said. “His brother’s name is Chubba. I’m like, ‘Who’s naming these guys?’ ”
She jokes, but Purdy and his family made an impression long before the quarterback began a swift and unlikely rise to NFL stardom. Salata would’ve loved this story. He spent half his life making sure Mr. Irrelevant felt special, if only for a brief time. Now here’s Purdy, reimagining the possibilities.
He’s the ideal quarterback for a star-laden team, a fact often lost as hot-take artists debate his place in the sport. Is he a franchise quarterback? Or is he a game manager? Is he a reflection of San Francisco’s masterfully constructed roster and Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive wizardry? Or is he a 24-year-old hidden gem becoming a quarterback who can transcend his system?
The debate, even the pro-Purdy sentiment, fails to capture his essence. His superpower is that he renders those things meaningless. He just plays for his team. He just trusts his coach. During these playoffs, he has declined to make his fleet-footed playmaking and second-half heroics about him, despite the defense it could be against critics of his uneven performance. He’s the most fame-agnostic quarterback to produce at an elite level that I can remember.
“I mean, the bottom line is, life isn’t about you,” Purdy said. “That’s what I believe, you know? Being a part of something bigger than yourself. You get wrapped up in getting all the glory and the fame and the status, but I feel like that’s a shallow life. That can fade away pretty quickly.”
Purdy may forever be viewed as a fortunate Mr. Irrelevant. Perception can be stubborn. Sometimes, success doesn’t free all minds. But Purdy realized he was something bigger than himself before Shanahan turned to him in December 2022. He embraced Mr. Irrelevant immediately. He hasn’t changed. He has grown.
“He’s a really unique guy because he’s just so appreciative,” Fitch said of Purdy. “Once he started playing, he kept in touch with us, and so did his family. He talks with us about his play and improvement. He [played for] state championships in high school, set records and won bowl games in college, but he really thought being honored as Mr. Irrelevant was special. Hopefully he does well in the Super Bowl and the Niners win. We’ll probably party with him after the game.”
Salata, a former wide receiver who played two seasons with the 49ers, used to man the San Francisco phone during the draft. One year, he went to the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, with an idea to recognize the last selection. Since 1976, Mr. Irrelevant has been acknowledged. In 2025, the Salata family will welcome a 50th member.
“My birthday is always during the draft,” said Fitch, 68. “I haven’t had a birthday for 50 years. I just sit in Applebee’s and have them put a candle in my doughnut.”
The festivities don’t end with a draft announcement. There’s an entire Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach. The schedule is tweaked according to the tastes of each player. Purdy is from Arizona, but his mother grew up in Southern California. During his week, his activities included surfing lessons and canoeing with former Olympians. A Disneyland trip is customary, but Purdy preferred to go to Knott’s Berry Farm, an old theme park where he could be a 49er basically, panning for gold and playing catch with the mascot, Whittles.
“We took a player to the Playboy Mansion one time, but Brock liked being on the farm,” Fitch said. “He could’ve taken the family to Disney, but instead of Mickey Mouse, he opted for Mr. Whittles.”
During the NFC championship game last year in Philadelphia, with Purdy-mania at its peak, the quarterback injured his elbow. The Eagles destroyed the ailing 49ers, 31-7, during a game in which backup Josh Johnson also was knocked out early. The loss denied Purdy the opportunity to return home to Arizona for the Super Bowl. But the city where Fitch made him an NFL draft pick is a glorious consolation.
For the Salata family, it also would be a legacy moment. They keep this tradition alive to stay connected with Paul, whom Fitch described as a “funster.” He lived to distribute joy. Now his team — the same 49ers for whom he scored the last touchdown of their time in the All-America Football Conference and the first of their distinguished run in the NFL — is vying for its sixth Super Bowl title. And Purdy, a baby-faced marvel who finds his relevance irrelevant, will bring a family’s passion onto the greatest American sports stage.
“Dad’s motto was ‘Doing something nice for someone for no reason,’ ” said Fitch, who has run Irrelevant Week for more than 25 years. “It was his version of random acts of kindness.”
The atmospheric river has made car travel dangerous in Southern California. But Fitch needs to see her friend. They were last together in Kansas City — because, well, of course — during the 2023 draft. Purdy was recovering from elbow surgery and making an appearance for Buffalo Wild Wings. Fitch was working to pronounce the name of Mr. Irrelevant No. 48: Los Angeles Rams defensive end Desjuan Johnson. Fitch and Purdy didn’t take the stage together because it was time to give Johnson his moment. They hoped to do something fun again soon.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl,” Fitch said, as if to remind herself. “We’ll get there. I promise you we’ll get there by game time. The rain, this huge storm, it doesn’t matter. It’s, well, irrelevant.”