The party started just before noon on Saturday, May 2, in an apartment complex clubhouse in Stuart, Florida. Mingling with 100 of his family members and closest friends, the man of the hour was aglow, beaming with joy as he hugged those who meant everything to him.
The crowning hour of his life, Gerald Christian believed, had arrived.
On the final day of the 2015 NFL draft, Gerald was confident his cellphone would ring shortly after the start of the fourth round. A 6'3", 244-pound tight end from Louisville, Gerald caught 32 passes for 384 yards as a senior and was named third-team All-ACC.
He didn't hire an agent—"Contracts are slotted now by where you are drafted, and you can save money if you do your own contract," he said—but NFL personnel at the scouting combine in Indianapolis in late February indicated he would be picked anywhere from the fourth to sixth round.
But the memory of the combine also had haunted Gerald. Throughout his football life, he was known as a big man with speed. That was why Rivals.com pegged him as the nation's No. 2 tight end recruit coming out of William T. Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, in 2010—where he helped lead his team to a state title—and why then-Florida coach Urban Meyer made Gerald a key part of his '10 recruiting class.
Gerald left Gainesville for Louisville in 2011 after Meyer briefly walked away from coaching, but his speed stayed with him. Then last December he sprained his right posterior cruciate ligament in Louisville's final regular-season game against Kentucky.
A month later Gerald caught an 11-yard touchdown pass against Georgia in the Belk Bowl, but the knee still bothered him. Before the combine he spent six weeks training in Orlando with other draft hopefuls, rehabbing his knee and preparing to run the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis.
On the morning he was scheduled to cover the most important 40 yards of his life, Gerald knew his knee wasn't 100 percent. He decided to run anyway. Crouching in a sprinter's starting position, he bolted off the line at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Hundreds of coaches and GMs held their stopwatches up to their eyes. Gerald was a blur of pumping arms and churning legs as he blazed through the stadium's soft light.
He crossed the finish line. When Gerald looked up at the scoreboard clock after his first attempt, his heart sank: 4.8. He wasn't any faster in his next two attempts.
Gerald knew there weren't many spots on NFL rosters for tight ends who run 4.8 40s, but he had consistently ripped off 4.6 40s since high school. Now he hoped NFL teams would value his game tape more than his combine performance.
The minutes ticked, ticked, ticked by on May 2. Many of Gerald's family members didn't understand how the draft worked. In the fifth round an aunt asked, "Does it mean if you don't get picked that your career is over?"
In the sixth round a friend sat next to Gerald and, in a concerned voice, said, "What are you going to do with the rest of your life if you can't play in the NFL?"
At the start of the seventh round, Gerald felt a sense of shame welling inside him. I'm disappointing everyone, he thought. I'm a failure.
He had to get away. Clutching his cellphone, he walked outside alone and climbed into the cab of a friend's truck. His entire life, he felt, had been building to this moment. But now he just wanted to drive away from his own party.
Then hope: With only a handful of picks left in the seventh and final round, his cellphone bleated. But it was false hope: A team wanted to sign him to a free-agent contract if he went undrafted. Gerald grabbed a notepad and started scribbling down the details of the contract offer.
Then another call arrived. It was from Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians. "Gerald, I know this has been a long day and long process, but we're going to select you with the last pick in the draft," Arians said. "Do you want to be a Cardinal?"
"Yes, sir," Gerald replied.
"Go tell your family," Arians said. "It will be announced on television in a few minutes."
Gerald leapt out of the truck. He crossed the parking lot and entered the clubhouse. Just then the pick aired on ESPN. With the 256th overall pick in the NFL draft, the Arizona Cardinals select Gerald Christian, tight end, Louisville.
The clubhouse erupted in cheers. Gerald cried, the tears falling down his cheeks like candle wax. He hugged his mom as tight as he ever had. He grabbed his girlfriend, Veronica White, and their infant daughter, Gia. They all sobbed in joy.
Then his cellphone buzzed again. A woman from Newport Beach, California, was on the line informing Gerald that he was this year's Mr. Irrelevant and that in early July he would be feted like an A-list celebrity for a week in Southern California.
Gerald was confused. The first words out of his mouth were: "What's Mr. Irrelevant?"
It is one of the greatest tales in NFL lore, one that went untold for years.
Rewind the clock to the spring of 1976. One afternoon, Paul Salata, who played wide receiver at USC in the late 1940s and was a former 10th-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1951, hears a story about a man picking a name at random out of the telephone book and invites that person to Laguna Beach for a few days of fun in the sun.
Inspired, Salata, a successful businessman in Newport Beach, comes up with his own idea: He wants to bring the last player selected in the NFL draft to Newport Beach for a week and celebrate him as if were the first player drafted.
"My dad is an underdog and he wanted to celebrate the underdog," said Melanie Finch, Paul's daughter and the CEO of Irrelevant Week. "His motto is: 'Do something for somebody for no reason.' And so he started Mr. Irrelevant Week."
The final player picked in the 1976 draft was Kelvin Kirk, a wide receiver from the University of Dayton. Salata had a gift for showmanship—he had bit roles in several movies, including Stalag 17 and Angels in the Outfield—and he promised Kirk he would enjoy a week like no other in Newport Beach.
Salata offered to cover his expenses, throw a parade in his honor and award him the "Lowsman Trophy,” the anti-Heisman that features a player fumbling the ball.
Kirk, picked in the 17th round, quickly accepted.
But there was a slight glitch in the plan: Kirk overslept. He missed his flight from Dayton to Southern California.
Salata had already alerted local media about his idea, and that afternoon a press conference was slated to be held in front of the local courthouse. Salata, a lover of screwball comedies, then improvised: He drove to his local Safeway and asked the butcher—a lean, athletic-looking 42-year-old—to pretend to be a wide receiver from the University of Dayton.
Hours later the butcher—chest thrust out and smiling like a wide-eyed farm boy from the Rust Belt—was standing in front of cameras and notepads on the Newport Beach courthouse steps. He explained how grateful he was to be in sunny California. He detailed what his life was like on the Dayton campus (a place the butcher had never seen). And he emphasized how excited he was to take his first journey out west. The press devoured his every word.
The butcher rode in the back of a convertible along a parade route, blowing kisses to the adoring crowd, telling kids, "Don't smoke, don't drink … Play football … I love you."
Later in the day the "real" Kelvin Kirk finally arrived. When no media were looking, he relieved the butcher of his duties as Mr. Irrelevant. The local reporters never caught wind of the ruse.
And so began an oddball tradition that is now in its 40th year.
On a blue-sky July morning in Newport Beach, Gerald's "Irrelevant Week" got off to a fitting start: His bags were lost.
When Gerald, girlfriend Veronica and their daughter Gia arrived at John Wayne Airport, a local photographer began shooting pictures for a story. There was just one tiny problem: The photographer was training his lens on a middle-aged white man wearing an Arizona Cardinals cap.
"Oh, you're not Gerald," the photographer said to Jerry McGee, the chairman of The Undefeated, a nonprofit foundation that hosts the event.
Gerald greeted a crowd of 15 at the airport and then ducked into an awaiting SUV. With the flashing blue lights from a motorcycle cop leading the way—the escort was totally unwarranted, but it set the tongue-in-cheek theme of the next five days—Gerald was ferried to the Balboa Bay Resort.
"I'm just going to have fun with this," Gerald said. "I've been working so hard to prepare for training camp, and this is my only vacation before it all starts. But in a few weeks I'm going to show everyone that I'm very relevant."
That afternoon Gerald, his girlfriend and their baby rode for over an hour in the back of a black SUV to downtown Los Angeles for an interview at the NFL Network. As the Escalade rolled north on the 405, Gerald gazed out the window at the distant foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Being so far from home—this was his first trip to California—triggered a childhood memory.
He closed his eyes and was lifted back in time: He was eight years old and playing pickup football with his older cousin Tony Jones on a sandlot in Jupiter, Florida. Jones had taught little Gerald how to catch a football, and they were constantly battling other kids on this weedy lot—Gerald's first proving ground. After their games, Gerald and Jones often would go fishing together until twilight fell and the lampposts came on. In the Escalade Gerald opened his eyes and shared the news: Tony, 27, had been slain two weeks ago.
"A 16-year-old kid and a 17-year-old jumped Tony," Gerald said. "Tony was getting the best of them, so one of them pulled out a gun and shot and killed him.
"I saw Tony the day after I got drafted," Gerald continued. "He was on his bike and he congratulated me and told me how happy he was. It's devastating that he's gone. Now I'll never get to share playing in the NFL with him. It was both of our dreams. But I'll have him with me on every single play. He'll definitely be with me."
Yes, every NFL draft pick—even the one drafted 256th—has a story.
There have been some wild moments—appropriate for mature audiences only—in the 40 years of Mr. Irrelevant Week.
Paul Salata, who is now 88, used to bring in several female flight attendants from around the States to follow Mr. Irrelevant for the week and lavish attention on him. The attendants went by nicknames—Boobs, Buns, Brains, Legs—and some were known to really cut loose after dark, one reason why a few past Mr. Irrelevants will swear this was the greatest week of their lives, blondes dropping into their laps like manna from Hugh Hefner heaven.
Tevita Ofahengaue, the 2001 Mr. Irrelevant, was told he could bring his family to Newport Beach. So Ofahengaue flew 62 relatives from Tonga to Southern California, which translated into an eye-popping bill for the Undefeated foundation.
"At that point we instituted a rule limiting the number of family members," Melanie Finch said with a laugh.
Another Mr. Irrelevant in the early 2000s arrived in Newport Beach with his fiancee. After several days of late-night fun, Mr. Irrelevant returned home. But what happened in Newport Beach didn't stay in Newport Beach; he promptly broke off his engagement.
In 2003 Ryan Hoag, a wide receiver from Division III Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, was selected by the Raiders as Mr. Irrelevant. Hoag was single at the time, so a "Mrs. Irrelevant" contest was held to find him a date.
Hoag never found a mate—he later was on the television show The Bachelorette, where he also struck out in the love department—but a couple of Hoag's buddies who were with him in Newport Beach…well, let's just say they had a boozy night for the ages with a few of the "Mrs. Irrelevant" contestants.
"I've come back five times since I was Mr. Irrelevant because the people here have become like family," said Hoag, who spent time on the rosters of five NFL teams between 2003 and '08. "When you've just been drafted, it's hard to come here because you're missing a few days of training, but it's worth it because it reminds you not to take yourself and life so seriously. This week is all about one thing: having fun for no reason."
There is always a near-bottomless supply of goofiness during Irrelevant Week in Newport Beach.
At this year's "Arrival Party" at Balboa Bay Resort, Miss Orange County and Miss City of Orange escorted Gerald into an oversized lifeguard's chair. He then was given over 200 quirky gifts.
They ranged from a "Get Out of Jail Free" card from local deputy police chief Joe Lewis—the card had already expired, prompting Lewis to say, "It's the thought that counts, right?"—to a margarita drink maker.
Gerald also was handed a letter from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who wrote, "If you can survive Irrelevant Week, it means you probably have what it takes to endure everything Coach Arians and the Arizona Cardinals will throw at you at training camp."
A parade was given in Gerald's honor, he went surfing, he rode in the Goodyear blimp over Los Angeles and he spent a day at Disneyland. Gerald rarely stopped smiling, his teeth gleaming like a long row of piano keys.
Gerald heard one zinger after the next about being a long shot—"I'll take the snowball's chances in hell over yours," a fan jokingly shouted to Gerald during the week—but Gerald took the ribbing in stride, an easy thing to do when you're on a hefty expense account.
"I know it's all just kind of a joke," Gerald said. "But it does give me that extra bit of motivation."
The final big event was a roast. Held in a ballroom at the Balboa Bay Resort, Gerald sat on a stage in front of a crowd of 400. But a funny thing happened as the speakers prepared to fillet the guest of honor: The sight of Gerald—the embodiment of the kid on the playground who was picked last—moved everyone. Instead of being roasted, he was offered pearls of wisdom.
Said Jesse Sapolu, who played offensive lineman for the 49ers from 1983 to '97 and is one of six San Francisco players with four Super Bowl rings: "I was an 11th-round pick, No. 289 overall, and not one day in my 15-year career did I ever forget that. It gave me an edge that I brought to every play. I've seen your tape, Gerald, and you've got what it takes."
Said Ofahengaue, who played two seasons in the NFL with Arizona ('01) and Jacksonville ('02): "My advice is to get to know the front office. If you get close to them, your chances of making it will be higher."
Said Ryan Hoag: "Do something in practice every day that will get you noticed. Always go full speed."
Said Sam Cunningham, a first-round pick of the Patriots in 1973: "Remember it's not how you start your NFL career, it's how you finish. It doesn't matter where you are drafted. If you put the work in, it will pay off."
At the end of the night, Gerald strode to the dais. "I'm going to make everyone in this room proud," he said.
Then he took a deep breath, grinned wickedly and told the crowd, "I can't believe it, but this week I've had a lot of fun with these crazy-ass white people!"
Why do we love an underdog?
Is it because we see a bit of ourselves in their story—the way we were too small or too slow and/or too clumsy to make it in professional athletics? Is that why, when a Mr. Irrelevant flourishes in the NFL, it suddenly evolves into one of the most heartwarming, feel-good stories in all of sport? Is that a slice of our own dream coming true?
It's happened before. Running back Jim Finn, Mr. Irrelevant 1999, played seven seasons with the Bears, Colts and Giants. In 2005 he was the tank of a blocking back for Tiki Barber, who ran for 1,860 yards that season.
Linebacker Marty Moore, Mr. Irrelevant 1994, played in 112 games for the Patriots and Browns. On Jan. 26, 1997, he became the first last draft pick in history to suit up in a Super Bowl in the Patriots' 35-21 loss to the Packers.
Kicker Ryan Succop, Mr. Irrelevant 2009, is with the Tennessee Titans and in his seventh year in the league. He's already earned millions: At the end of the 2011 season, Succop signed a five-year, $14 million contract with the Chiefs.
And now, to hear Cardinals coach Bruce Arians tell it, Gerald has a chance to join this list of productive Mr. Irrelevants. "Gerald is a special player," Arians says. "We were fortunate that he fell to us. He makes us a better team."
As Arians speaks, he's sitting in his makeshift office on the first floor of the Renaissance Hotel in Glendale, Arizona. It's early August, the first day of Cardinals training camp, and the Arizona head coach fully expects Gerald to claim a spot on the final 53-man roster.
"Gerald is going to have to show us that he can be a quality special teams player," Arians says. "He's got a lot of ability."
Later that afternoon, inside University of Phoenix Stadium, Gerald is lining up with the second-string offense in an 11-on-11 drill. On a 2nd-and-10 play, Gerald runs a drag route across the middle of the field. Quarterback Drew Stanton rifles a pass that hits Gerald in the hands, but he drops it. Arians calls Gerald to him.
"You've got to get your head around quicker and see the ball coming," Arians says.
"Yes, sir," replies Gerald, locking eyes with his coach. "Yes, sir."
On the next play, Gerald picks up a blitzing safety, which enables Stanton to complete an eight-yard pass. On a 3rd-and-2, Gerald runs a corner route to the back of the end zone, where he hauls in a pass over his shoulder for a 15-yard touchdown. "Very nice, Gerald!" Arians yells. "Keep it up!"
That night Arians meets with his entire offense in a conference room at the Renaissance Hotel. Near the end of the 90-minute review of practice, Arians notices Gerald jump offside on the film.
"We can't see any more of that s--t," Arians says. "That right there could cost us the touchdown and the game. No more. It would suck not to make this team because you don't know the f--king snap count, Gerald."
Gerald, sitting near the front, quietly scribbles in his notebook. The lesson is learned.
Gerald is moments away from capturing his dream.
It's Sept. 3, and the opening kickoff to the Cardinals' final preseason game is a few minutes away. Tight ends coach Rick Christophel approaches Gerald in the visitor's locker room in Denver. "Get ready, you're going to play a lot tonight," Christophel says. "Make it count, Gerald. Make it count."
As soon as the opening whistle blows, Gerald is a blocking force on offense. His coaches have repeatedly told him during the preseason they want him to play like he lives for contact, and now Gerald is a hitting machine.
He seals the edge on sweeps to his side. He drives linebackers backward on power runs. And he destroys a safety who tries to blitz around him into the backfield.
On the third play of the second quarter, Cardinals backup quarterback Phillip Sims calls 25 Blunt Z-Edge in the huddle. The ball is handed to running back Chris Johnson, who starts to his left, then cuts to the right.
Gerald is blocking a linebacker on the second level of the defense when a Broncos defender dives at Johnson. He misses the running back but hits Gerald in the back of the left knee.
Gerald crumples to the ground.
The NFL can be oh so cruel.
On his back, Gerald rips his helmet off and screams in pain. He pounds the grass with his hands, once, twice, three times. Trainers rush to Gerald and try to comfort him, but his eyes are closed, as if he can't bring himself to look down at his knee.
The Cardinals trainers run their hands over the knee. They explain to the fallen player that something is wrong with his MCL. They tell Gerald they will take an MRI the next day when the team is back in Phoenix.
Gerald is carted to the locker room. Minutes later, alone, he calls Veronica, the love of his life who is back in Louisville with their baby girl. He can hear the rise and fall of the crowd noise above him as her phone rings.
"I was really playing well," Gerald tells her. "Hopefully it's not bad and I'll only be out a few weeks."
The next morning, back in Phoenix, a trainer delivers the news to Gerald. He intuitively knows it's coming: The MCL is torn. He will need surgery and he will miss the season. Gerald feels like crying but controls his emotions.
The Cardinals place Gerald on their injured reserve list. He will spend the season rehabbing in Phoenix with the team but will not be allowed to practice with the team until next year.
"Just get better and focus on 2016," Arians tells Gerald. "You were doing good. Come back stronger than ever. We still believe in you."
Gerald is sitting on a table in the trainer's room at the Cardinals complex in Tempe. It's an early morning in September, and he's slated to have surgery in 24 hours.
"I haven't missed a season of football since I started playing in middle school," Gerald says. "But I'm not going to let this stop me. I'm focusing on what I can control. I can't get down, can't get sad. I'm still going to be the most relevant Mr. Irrelevant there ever was."
Then Mr. Irrelevant 2015 did something he hadn't done since he felt that horrible pain in his knee, something that gives you insight into his character, his mettle, and why he's still a good bet to beat the long odds of making it in the NFL as the last player picked in the draft.
He smiles as bright and brilliant as the desert sun.