Paul Salata was a wide receiver at the University of Southern California in 1944, 1946 and 1947. He caught a touchdown in the 1945 Rose Bowl before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II. He was also an infielder on the U.S.C. team that won the College World Series in 1948, and he played one season in the minor leagues in 1950.
Like most of the Mr. Irrelevants, Mr. Salata had a largely unremarkable career. He played 23 games for the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers in the early 1950s, as well as two years in Canada, before leaving the game in 1953.
He also had a few moments in Hollywood, with minor roles in movies like “Stalag 17” and “Angels in the Outfield.” In “The Ten Commandments,” he fought Charlton Heston and lost, leading him to joke often that he was so old he was beaten up by Moses.
As his dreams of stardom faded, Mr. Salata went into his father’s line of work, sewer construction; helped start the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation; and focused on turning Irrelevant Week into an offbeat ritual.
“My mantra has been to make the ‘F’ in N.F.L. mean fun,” said Rich Eisen, a longtime host on the N.F.L. Network who often interviewed Mr. Salata during the draft. “He was perfect in our studio because he created such a quirky tradition.”
N.F.L. teams soon figured out that drafting Mr. Irrelevant was free publicity. In 1979, the Los Angeles Rams intentionally passed on the next-to-last pick to force the Steelers, who had the last pick, to choose first. Mr. Rozelle had to intervene and let the Steelers pick last. Thus the “Salata Rule,” which prevented teams from angling to pick last, was born.
One year, Ms. Fitch said, when the Raiders had the last pick, Jerry Davis, the brother of Al Davis, the team’s owner, joked to Mr. Salata that the Raiders were going to pick the player who had the most complicated last name so Mr. Salata would have trouble pronouncing it.