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An Aquinas graduate finds relevance in Brock Purdy’s underdog success story

Kevin McMahan hasn’t watched much football since being released by the Carolina Panthers just before the 2009 season kicked off. And that’s understandable considering the former Aquinas Institute three-sport star had “kind of soured on professional football” after his dogged, three-year attempt to make an NFL roster failed.

Last Sunday, though, something magical prompted McMahan to tune in to an NFL game again. A story he could relate to was unfolding. It was a story that revived thoughts of what might have been had McMahan caught a break similar to the one afforded San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who was chosen dead last in April’s NFL draft and has become the darling of underdogs everywhere.

Sixteen years ago, McMahan also was picked last. That distinction earned him the tongue-in-cheek “Mr. Irrelevant Award” – continuing a tradition that launched in 1976 when former University of Southern California player Paul Salata decided to have a blast with last. Salata began annually honoring the final picks by flying them and their families to Newport Beach, Calif., for “Irrelevant Week” celebrations that included a parade, a trip to Disneyland, and the presentation of the Lowsman Trophy, a spoof on the Heisman Trophy, with the depicted player dropping the football rather than striking a stiff-armed pose.

“I took it all in stride, and embraced it,’’ McMahan recalled. “It brought me a lot of attention. I remember being interviewed by ESPN, and a guy asked me if I knew about so-and-so who was drafted a few picks ahead of me. I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t.” And he said, “Exactly. No one knows that guy, but people know you because you are “Mr. Irrelevant,” and he was right. I was shocked at how many people knew me because of that designation and the publicity it generated.”

McMahan hoped to become relevant in the NFL following a stellar career as a speedy, All-Conference wide receiver at the University of Maine. But despite performing well in three different preseasons with three different teams he never advanced beyond the practice squad to the active roster.

“I got really close a couple of times, but never got that opportunity to show my skills in a regular-season game,’’ he said. “That’s all you look for. You just want a chance. I’m really happy that Brock’s getting his and taking full advantage of it. He’s showing there isn’t as much of a difference as you might think between someone drafted in the early rounds and someone drafted in the final round. It often comes down to fate and being in the right place at the right time.”

At the start of this season, Purdy appeared to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Buried deep down the 49ers quarterback depth chart behind highly drafted and highly paid Trey Lance and Jimmy Garappolo, the odds of the rookie from Iowa State seeing the field this season seemed as remote as a snowstorm in the Mohave. But when Lance and Garappolo suffered season-ending injuries, the 49ers had no choice but to turn to the guy they had drafted with the 262nd pick.

Purdy wound up experiencing his carpe diem moment Sunday, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another as the 49ers throttled the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Bucs, 35-7. It marked the first time Brady lost a game to a rookie quarterback. Regarded by most as the greatest QB of all-time, Brady knows a thing or two about being discounted coming out of college. He wasn’t a “Mr. Irrelevant,” but the former Michigan Wolverine signal-caller sure felt like one while waiting until the sixth round before the New England Patriots drafted him with the 199th pick overall

After Sunday’s disappointing loss in which the 45-year-old Brady suffered several emotional meltdowns, he shook hands with Purdy and told the quarterback who’s young enough to be his son: “You played great. Keep it going.”

Three thousand miles to the east, in Charlotte, N.C., where he lives with his wife and eight-year-old son, McMahan was feeling good for his fellow “Mr. Irrelevant.”

“It’s a great story,’’ he said. “Here’s a guy who’s third on the depth chart and it’s highly unlikely he’s ever going to touch the field, and then the two guys ahead of him go down, and he takes the field and does great things. You realize, ‘Hey, this guy is really talented.’ Again, you’re reminded that the difference between the top picks and the low ones is razor thin. Often comes down to opportunities.”

While most dead-last draft picks never make it, several have gone on to enjoy fruitful NFL careers. Ryan Succop probably is the most accomplished of the bunch. Currently in his 14th NFL season, the Bucs kicker has booted 313 field goals and is the owner of a Super Bowl ring.

McMahan never experienced his Brock Purdy moment. And while he couldn’t quite shed the “Mr. Irrelevant” tag in the NFL, he clearly has in the real world. The young man who earned MVP honors for Coach Dave Nieman’s  Aquinas state championship football team in 2001 has carved out a highly successful career in commercial real estate and finance while working for Nuveen, a Fortune 100 company.

“It might sound strange, but that “Mr. Irrelevant” listing on your resume can open some doors for you when you are looking for a job,’’ he said. “It definitely did for me. It gave me an opportunity to sell myself in those interviews.”

And create a life that has been anything but irrelevant.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


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