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Inside the celebration of Mr. Irrelevant and Jets rookie Jaylen Key



Inside the celebration of Mr. Irrelevant and Jets rookie Jaylen Key

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — Jaylen Key felt like everyone was staring at him. He was right.

Key, dressed in suit and tie, stood at the front of a yacht, surrounded by cheerleaders in Jets garb. The boat moved through the marina, in the wake of a police escort blasting its siren. Flanking it were two jet skis, the drivers holding New York Jets flags aloft.

He waved to passersby, and tried his best to hold a smile. Key wants to be a recognizable face in the NFL, but this sort of attention makes him a bit uncomfortable. He played college football for a year at Alabama but wasn’t exactly famous, even in football-mad Tuscaloosa. He’s an NFL player, but almost nobody outside the Jets’ suburban New Jersey facility would recognize him on the street.

Here in Newport, though, he was the man of the hour. The man of the week, to be exact. On a recent Tuesday evening, hundreds of adoring supporters cheered for him as he stepped off the boat, “Benny and the Jets” blaring. A silly tone to start a silly week. Everyone was there — at The Cannery restaurant — to see him, talk about him, talk to him, and roast him. This was only the beginning, a whole week dedicated to him, all because the Jets decided to pick him 257th overall in April, the last pick of the NFL Draft, the 49th-ever Mr. Irrelevant.

“One of our goals,” said Melanie Salata Fitch, CEO of Irrelevant Week, “is to try and have him feel as if he’s a celebrity, to make him feel welcome.”

Key does not lack confidence, even if he’s quiet when eyes are on him. He’s quiet when they aren’t too. But the Mr. Irrelevant celebration crew helped to crack away at his shell. If his smiles were forced on Tuesday, by Friday they were real.

This wasn’t Key’s first trip to Los Angeles, but it was his first time in Los Angeles traffic. The last time he was here, for the Rose Bowl in January, the players got police escorts to the stadium.

Key got the VIP treatment for most of Irrelevant Week but on Wednesday, he had to suffer through traffic on the way to NFL Network’s studio in Culver City. It took an hour-and-a-half for the SUV to traverse 45 miles. Key sat shotgun, mostly listening to music on his headphones, with Fitch driving.

Key’s father, Elijah, was in the backseat. Elijah Key also played college football, though he only lasted a year at Georgia Southern before dropping the sport and transferring to Florida State in pursuit of a career in education. In between work phone calls — Key is a superintendent in their hometown of Quincy, Fla., in the Gadsden County school district — he reminisced about his son’s path.

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When Jaylen was 8, Elijah coached his Pee-Wee team. Jaylen was playing against 9- and 10-year-olds — Elijah recalls Jaylen “getting beat up” in his first year, going against older kids. Key, playing running back, linebacker and even a little nose guard, started to come into his own the next year. Elijah remembers, in painstaking detail, a playoff game Jaylen’s team lost when rules were changed at the last minute; the game ended 0-0, but total yardage was used as a tiebreaker. Elijah is still bitter about it.

Once Jaylen got to Gadsden County High, he primarily played cornerback. He was called up to varsity toward the end of his freshman season and was inserted right into the starting lineup. That week saw him matched up against Wakulla High wide receiver Keith Gavin, a 6-foot-4 four-star recruit headed to Florida State. Key was 5-foot-9.

“I’m like, Uh oh, this isn’t gonna be good,” Elijah said.

Gavin didn’t record a catch.

“Zero completions, that’s a DB stat!” Jaylen said.

The next year, Jaylen was “ready to play,” Elijah said. As a sophomore and junior, Jaylen played well enough at cornerback to garner a few scholarship offers. Before his senior year, he committed to UAB — and transferred to Godby High, following Corey Fuller, his coach at Gadsden. Key played safety as a senior, against much stiffer competition. At Godby the talent level was higher, there were multiple four- and five-star recruits on the roster. He thrived anyway.

At UAB, Jaylen redshirted as a freshman and then barely played on defense for three years before finally getting a shot at real playing time in 2022, finishing with 60 tackles and three interceptions. He stood out enough to draw significant interest in the transfer portal and landed with Nick Saban at Alabama, where he competed for and won a starting job during training camp.

How? “I’m built for it,” he said.

Wednesday night, Key went to 22nd Street Pizza back in Newport, by the beach, to learn how to make his own pizza and to toss around a football-shaped calzone with fans in the street. On the wall, there’s a photo of 2022’s Mr. Irrelevant doing the same thing.

Brock Purdy’s success in the NFL brought Irrelevant Week to new heights. The quarterback still looks back fondly on his experience. In Purdy’s year, the event raised more than $100,000 for various charities (Fitch expects a similar fundraise from this year’s event).

“Yeah, I’ve kept track and everything,” Purdy said in May. “They do a great job down in Newport for a great cause. Yes, it’s Mr. Irrelevant, but they’re raising money and doing a great job of giving back to the community, which is pretty cool.”

Paul Salata, Fitch’s father, started Irrelevant Week in 1976. Held every year at the end of June, the event has grown in a way that Salata, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 94, never could have imagined.

“It was pretty big when he left,” said Fitch, who takes the stage to announce the final pick every year. “He came from a poor family and he had this whole idea of honoring the underdog. So when it became a big deal he thought that was surprising. He’d say, ‘I always thought the last guy drafted should be honored like the first one,’ and now he is.”

In the NFL, Salata was not irrelevant. He holds a special place in 49ers history: He scored the last touchdown when the 49ers were still part of the AAFC in 1949, and their first touchdown after the franchise became part of the NFL a year later. After his playing career ended in 1953, Salata heard of a group that used to pick a random name out of a phone book and name a day after them. That inspired Salata to create a celebration of the last pick in the draft, an idea he pitched to then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1976. Rozelle liked the idea. Back then, the NFL Draft lasted 17 rounds. Wide receiver Kevin Kirk, pick No. 176, was the first Mr. Irrelevant.

“About 25 years in, it was big,” Fitch said. “People wanted to participate, people wanted to sponsor it. So I took it over because my dad was just a good ol’ boy, he just wanted to have the guy come out and try his favorite fish taco. So we pretty much liked that it was raising money for charity, that the guy was having a good time, that the people coming were having a good time. He was the one that made up the motto for Irrelevant Week, which is: Doing something nice for someone for no reason.”

Jaylen Key, Mr. Irrelevant of the 2024 NFL draft, and Melanie Salata Fitch, CEO of Irrelevant week.

Fitch (right) goes into every Irrelevant Week with the goal of celebrating the draft’s final pick (like Key, left) like the first pick.

Each year, Fitch tries to cater the festivities to the player. Shortly after announcing Key as the Jets’ pick at No. 257, she was on the phone with him, asking about his hometown, his favorite music, favorite and least favorite foods. A week later, they checked back to figure out what activities best suited him. Fitch has set up meet-and-greets with celebrities like Will Ferrell and Kobe Bryant in the past, but Key didn’t have a desire to meet anyone famous. Key said he liked all food except sushi, that he was interested in learning how to surf, that he enjoyed riding ATVs and appreciated nice cars. The ATV inspired Fitch to get Key and his family — he brought his father and two of his sisters — on jet skis, “because it’s an ATV on the water,” she said.

By the time Key arrived, everything was fully fleshed out. Fitch, her two daughters and a few others were waiting for him at the airport.

“When I first arrived the energy was high so I knew what I was in for,” Key said. “You know about Mr. Irrelevant but you don’t know the whole celebration behind it until you’re getting that call after the draft that you have a Mr. Irrelevant week you have to go to. Even then, you don’t understand what you’re getting yourself into but you learn pretty quick because everybody in town is hyped.”

Key got to Newport on Saturday, June 22, debriefing with Fitch over dinner. Key and his family were to stay at Fitch’s house by the beach in Newport, a floor all to themselves. Key’s one request for the week: Don’t make him speak at church on Sunday. (The request was honored — though the pastor did shout him out.)

On Monday, Key and his family went jet-skiing and attended a Los Angeles Angels game against the Oakland A’s and got to watch batting practice. (Los Angeles Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh was there too, though he declined a request to take a photo with Key.)

Tuesday’s main event was the banquet, where most of the fundraising takes place. This year, the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, the Orange County Youth Sports Foundation and Orangewood, a nonprofit organization devoted to helping foster kids, were among the charities that will receive contributions.

Everything at The Cannery themed around Key, his name — emphasis on “key” — and the NFL journey he’s about to embark on in New York. New York-themed songs (“New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind”) played throughout the evening. Each table was adorned with Mr. Irrelevant Jets hats, shirts, footballs and even complimentary wine. Dozens of local cheerleaders dressed in Jets garb filled the venue and greeted guests upon arrival.

Decoration at the Irrelevant Week celebration for Jets safety Jaylen Key

Irrelevant Week decor played up the symbolism of Key’s name. (Zack Rosenblatt / The Athletic)

Then the roast began. People Key had never met — among them former Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Matt Willig, an ex-Jet turned Hollywood actor — poked him playfully. Other roasters included local police and firefighters, real Top Gun pilots, former NFL wide receiver Ron Brown and former NFL defensive lineman Frostee Rucker. Most of the jokes came at the expense of the Jets (and a certain quarterback) rather than Key himself.

“I wanted to roast you but you’re a Jet, it’s already bad,” Brown cracked. Another roaster — a policeman — joked that there’s “a good chance in January you’ll have some free time on your hands” since he plays for the Jets, and said that Aaron Rodgers is hiding “in a tent somewhere” and then shared a fake booking photo of Rodgers, as if he’d been arrested.

All eyes were on Key, standing in the middle of the room, sweating, smiling.



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Sanchez made a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” for Key to live by as a Jet. That included going to a Broadway show, paying attention to both the good and bad press about him — and not eating a hot dog on the sideline during a game, like Sanchez did.

“If you’re humble, nothing will touch you — neither praise nor disgrace — because you know who you are,” Sanchez said. “As Rex Ryan put it, you have to have skin like an armadillo, not a deer, in this (New York) market. That’s leaning on your resilience and understanding who you are no matter what happens on and off the field.”

As part of the evening, Key was gifted a watch, a surfboard, a key to the city and a letter from commissioner Roger Goodell, congratulating him on becoming Mr. Irrelevant. He was also presented with the Lowsman Trophy, a parody of the Heisman Trophy. Instead of depicting a football player holding the ball high and tight, the player is fumbling.

On Wednesday, Key took the trip to the NFL Network studio, hallways adorned with artwork of NFL legends. That included Joe Namath, donning sunglasses and blowing bubble gum. On his way to an on-camera interview, Key bumped into Giants defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, hailing an Uber. The next stop — after another 45 minutes in traffic — was at Fox studios, where Key got a tour of movie and TV sets and a behind-the-scenes look at one of the few sound stages in Hollywood, where classic films like “Jaws” were scored. Riding on a golf cart, Key passed by actor Milo Ventimiglia, of NBC’s “This Is Us.” He also was interviewed at Fox Sports, where he answered a question about criticism the Jets have gotten this offseason: “We’ll shut some mouths.”

Wednesday night, there was a bar crawl of sorts, starting at the pizza shop. On his way to the next stop (a sports bar), Key posed for a photo next to a drawing of legendary 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, known for his bone-rattling tackles. “That’s how I taught him to hit before they changed the tackling rules,” Elijah Key said.

Next came a run with the Newport Run Club. Key went for a mile, others went for longer. “Nothing I haven’t done,” Key said, though he did complain about sore calves from running on concrete. Next stop: Stag Bar, the oldest bar in Newport, where Key was a guest bartender. “I hope I don’t get everyone too drunk,” he said, smiling. Last stop of the night: wing eating and weightlifting at the Helmsman Ale House. Key was supposed to eat as many wings as he could in 30 seconds, then do as many bicep curls as he could in the same amount of time. He only managed to eat two wings — they were piping hot — even after getting an extension to 60 seconds. He fared better in the weightlifting portion: 37 curls.

Thursday morning, Key learned how to surf. He fell on his first try but quickly got the hang of it. After riding a small wave (on a board made for beginners) and staying on his feet, Pete Townend — a legendary former surfer — gave him a score of 4 (out of 10) and then a 5 on his next surf. Townend said that was the best score he’d ever given to a Mr. Irrelevant. Key spoke at the beach with kids from Save Our Youth — an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged kids in the area. They were starstruck.

Jets rookie Jaylen Key poses with Irrelevant Week fans after a surfing lesson.

Key held his own after a quick crash course on catching waves. (Zack Rosenblatt / The Athletic)

Then, he shuttled over to Balboa Pier to meet with hundreds of junior lifeguards. When he came out to speak, the kids screamed as if they were meeting Justin Bieber. A man of few words, Key’s advice to them was brief: “I don’t have a lot of words for you guys but just keep working hard … be a great teammate and just listen. Soak it all up and you’ll be just fine. That’s all I have to say.”

On his way out, Fitch’s husband surprised Key with a ride back to the house in an orange McLaren sports car. This was the biggest he’d smiled all week. He learned how to sail on Thursday night and then flew home on Friday morning. The celebration was over. Now, work.

As Jets general manager Joe Douglas was readying to choose a player at pick No. 257, he gathered scouts in the draft room and asked each one: “Which guy are you most fired up about?”

Together, the room decided on Key.

“He’s been given nothing and had to earn everything,” Douglas said. “The right kind of warrior makeup mentality and perseverance that is going to help him, here and in life.”

Recent history has been kinder to Mr. Irrelevants in the NFL than it had been for most of the history of the designation, even beyond Purdy. Defensive end Desjuan Johnson was picked by the Rams last year and played in 11 games, getting two sacks. Linebacker Grant Stuard, selected in 2021 by the Bucs, has carved out a special teams role, playing 47 games in three years (he was traded to the Colts in 2022). Giants linebacker Tae Crowder (2020) started 31 games in three years for the Giants. The biggest success story (outside of Purdy) was kicker Ryan Succop in 2009. He played in 216 games.

The last Jet to be Mr. Irrelevant was defensive tackle Fred Zirkle in 1969; he never reported to training camp, opting to pursue a career in the tech industry instead.

Key is hoping for a much lengthier NFL stay. He flew home to Florida on Friday, his Lowsman Trophy and many other gifts from the week packed for the return trip. He’ll train for a few weeks and then report to Jets camp with other rookies on July 18. He faces an uphill climb to the roster since the Jets already have four safeties — Tony Adams, Chuck Clark, Ashtyn Davis and Isaiah Oliver — but it helps that Key contributes on special teams. This isn’t the first time he’s had to fight for a job.

Jets rookie Jaylen Key poses with an orange McLaren sportscar during Irrelevant Week.

The ride home was one of the highlights of Key’s Irrelevant Week. (Zack Rosenblatt / The Athletic)

Most seventh-round picks toil in obscurity. But there will be plenty of fans closely following Key’s career, many of them in Newport Beach. The Irrelevant contingent plans on making its way up to Santa Clara for the Jets’ Week 1 game against the 49ers.

“We take signs, we’ll be those idiots in the stands wearing Mr. Irrelevant shirts,” Fitch said. “We love it when they make it. We believe we’re really supporting these guys; we’re his fans now.”

All week long in Newport, among the many fans that approached him, Key heard a similar sentiment often: “This is much better than being picked second-to-last, huh?”

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Zack Rosenblatt / The Athletic)

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