The last man standing

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) – Long after the blue chips are claimed,
impact players are scooped up and top prospects find homes, that’s when the
NFL Draft gets really interesting.

Every fan has a favorite, prognosticator a prime pick, general manager a
general idea for how to make his pro team better moving forward, but the real
work comes when the big names come off the board and late-round gems are
unearthed. Maybe that pick in the sixth or seventh round is a head-scratcher,
perhaps your hometown team made a steal in the third round with their gamble
on the guy from that far-off university.

Quite honestly, the celebrated picks of the NFL Draft who are accompanied by
a blitz of video highlights and interviews from Pop Warner coaches who saw the
potential all those years ago don’t thrill me. Those first-night selections
are supposed to get the job done in short order and turn around pro clubs that
are searching for that final piece of the puzzle.

But how many times has a highly touted draft pick or collegiate superstar gone
from a no-brainer to no longer valued in the league?

Just take a look at some of the Heisman Trophy winners from the last few
decades who have gone on to be footnotes in media guides after their college
careers concluded …

In 2000, it was Chris Weinke who went nowhere fast, and the following year Eric
Crouch crashed and burned. Two years later, Jason White proved to be
inconsequential. Ohio State’s Troy Smith couldn’t even make an impact in the
Canadian Football League and after two years out of the NFL, Tim Tebow is
inexplicably now on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster.

Robert Griffin III is riding out his contract without an extension in the
nation’s capital and Johnny Football is hoping that after a stint in rehab, he
can gain the trust of his Cleveland teammates.

The hype is simply too much for some to live up to and their personalities
often don’t help the cause. But in order to be a star, somewhere along the
line, an athlete has to acquire a killer instinct, the self-confidence that
makes them believe anything is possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

That might be why I always cheer for the little guy, the underdog, the
overachiever who was passed over by all the big-time college football programs
on national signing day and has the massive chip on his shoulders. Take that a
step further and you come to appreciate the players who are just happy to be
invited to the party. The guys who, after the green room is empty and the TV
cameras have gone dark, are still sitting at home waiting for that call from a
pro team that will make all their dreams come true.

Those dreams don’t involve the mansion on the hill and the fleet of cars that
never leave the garage, the commercial endorsements for emerging companies or
ostentatious jeweled baubles that could choke a horse. The dream is simply to
put on that jersey and be given a chance to prove themselves.

And from there, we find ourselves at Mr. Irrelevant.

The guy who teeters on the brink between having an employer at the end of
every NFL Draft and one who hits the road to free agency, he’s the last man
standing just before the draft closes up shop for another year.

It is a reference that dates to our nation’s bicentennial when Kelvin Kirk, a
receiver out of Dayton, was the 487th pick in 1976 by the Pittsburgh Steelers,
back when the draft was an exhausting 17 rounds. Chances are that last man
standing won’t be plastered on billboards and dating the latest super model or
etching his name into the NFL record books, but that’s not why he’s here.

“It’s a dream come true” Lonnie Ballentine said last year on a conference call
after he was selected by the Houston Texans with the final pick of the seventh
round. “As far as Mr. Irrelevant, I don’t know what it means. I just don’t
know. I know it’s the last pick of the draft.”

Ballentine, a former safety at Memphis, may not have understood the moniker,
accompanied by the Lowsman Trophy which features a wide-eyed player in the
process of fumbling the ball away, but again he was looking at the bigger
picture and watching the list of players whose names were called before his.

“Honestly, I wanted to see every player that went in front of me … I was
going to remember that. I’m going to remember that. That’s how I’m going to
work and be motivated to come in and to prove everyone wrong.”

So, you can either have an entitled egomaniac who believes his own press
clippings and generally has to be protected from himself or a mad-against-the-
world go-getter who is willing to fight and scrap for every inch of ground.

Ballentine eventually signed a four-year contract valued at $2.27 million with
the Texans, but he failed to make it onto the field for the team in 2014.
However, he is still listed on the roster, which keeps him in the same company
as one Jadeveon Clowney.

A punishing linebacker at the University of South Carolina who authored one of
the most devastating hits in recent memory when he sent the helmet of
Michigan’s Vincent Smith flying during the 2012 Outback Bowl, Clowney was a
unanimous All-American and the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, a full
two days before Ballentine got the call to the pros. Clowney played in just
four games and made a grand total of seven tackles for Houston, which wasn’t
the greatest return on his first year of a four-year deal worth $22.272
million.

In addition to the unique nickname and unusual trophy, Mr Irrelevant also
enjoys the spoils of a golf tournament, a regatta and a roast in Newport
Beach, California, and does so without the pressure and scrutiny of living out
a lifelong pursuit.

While it is still early, Ballentine looks like a huge bargain for the Texans,
even though he has yet to make a hit in a meaningful game. Odds are Ballentine
will go the way of nearly every other Mr. Irrelevant, but my dream is that he
won’t.