I have been covering sports for more than a decade and in practicing journalism, we're conditioned to focus on the champions; to seek interviews with the athletes who are the most successful, accruing the loftiest awards and achieving their ultimate dreams. Journalists are taught to look for the winners and thoroughly tell their story, because it's assumed, that is what the people want to hear about.
But then Paul Salata got an idea and for the past 36 years has been bulldozing every preconception of who decides whom the champions are. Salata, the originator of the very special Irrelevant Week celebration, turned the table on sports writers and made a champion of a nobody, and in doing so, galvanized this community and changed lives.
While NFL teams found 253 players more impressive than Ozougwu, none, not even top overall pick Cam Newton, received the fanfare that Ozougwu did this week. This was his family's first visit to Orange County, their first trip to Disneyland and his first Tag Heuer watch. The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, not only sent a letter congratulating Ozougwu, but also added a gold watch from the NFL. The former Rice University linebacker was given hundreds of gifts, a trophy, laughs, but most importantly, invaluable memories with his family. All because he was last. Dead last.
As a journalist, this story makes no sense. There are 253 athletes deemed more relevant than Ozougwu. But as a sports fan, this is exactly why we love sports. This community celebrates a hero and this so-called Mr. Irrelevant proved how important he is.
When I walked in to interview Cheta on the first day, he was in workout clothes, drinking bottled water, answering questions with a jovial tone. The sun was pouring into the windows at the Back Bay Bistro near Newport Dunes Resort that was hosting the Arrival Party for Mr. Irrelevant. At that point, this football player was not supposed to matter. He was one of many slabs of muscle corralled through the Combine, numbers stenciled on his chest, then luckily heard his name, happened to come at the tail end of three days and seven rounds of name calling. Well after the prime-time cameras had shut off. He could have been anybody and he was considered, in the ranks of his industry, to really be nobody.
But apparently, Ozougwu did not get that message. His collegiate success on the field and in the classroom spilled into the conversation with genuine humility. He spoke of his goals, not to be the greatest, but to be the hardest working. He spoke of his family, supportive, loving and real. He was open and thoughtful. He enjoyed the celebration but knew there is a lot of work ahead to ensure it would not be the only thing he was celebrated for.
His second day was a whirlwind through Disneyland, then up to Culver City and an interview with the NFL Network and then back to Disneyland to finish soaking up the sun, getting dropped in an elevator and twirling in tea cups. I watched him patiently wait for the crew to spill out of the various cars and set up photo ops. He signed autographs and took pictures with young children, their parents, their friends, the camera guy and his friend. And he accepted his temporary celebrity with gracious understanding that it was merely a door being opened. The journey is yet to come.
The Lowsman banquet followed on Wednesday with NFL Hall of Famer Mike Haynes, former players Clay Matthews, Clay Matthews Jr., Christian Okoye, and great coaches Stan Morrison, Dave Levy and John Robinson all in attendance, just to name a few. The dignitaries offered advice to Ozougwu. Robinson jokingly suggested Cheta roll into camp in a limo with Las Vegas showgirls dangling off his arm. Levy told him to play with the ferocity of Matthews Jr. and Haynes instructed him to become the guy coaches lean on. The Newport Beach Marriot banquet hall was packed. Each table brought people together for the sincere enjoyment of doing something nice for a great guy. You could not misplace the irony of top-round draft picks honoring Ozougwu with advice and Cheta noticeably absorbed the words.
The emcee was ESPNLA radio host, new Lakers play-by-play radio announcer and Corona del Mar High graduate, John Ireland. Ozougwu enjoyed the laughter and thanked the attendees for the memories, advice and love, but it was clear; his mind was on his mission to succeed as a professional football player.
Then after the fun and jokes had quieted, Ireland encapsulated the night by once again calling attention to the man who has changed lives with the irony of celebrating a so-called nobody. As he looked around the banquet hall of generous donors, Ireland said: "All this happened because one man wanted to do something nice for someone for no reason," speaking of Salata. "And when you have a tornado of a personality, NFL contacts and a million friends, this is what's possible."
The tens of thousands of dollars raised for the Goodwill of Orange County Fitness Center will certainly change lives, as we heard Wednesday evening of those directly impacted by the work of the center. And there is no doubt, the experience of Ozougwu and his family will reverberate for decades as they reminisce of the random acts of kindness bestowed. But most importantly, it will inspire the lives of those in attendance paying close enough attention to watch this so-called Mr. Irrelevant play a very important role in this community: to galvanize with gracious humility and succeed with genuine talent.