Editor’s Note: The late, great Lou Somogyi possessed an unmatched knowledge of Notre Dame football and it was his mission in life to share it with others. Those of us at BlueandGold.com would like to continue to share his wisdom and unique perspective with our readers.
With the 2021 NFL Draft beginning this evening, we thought it would be a great time to revisit Lou’s feature on Notre Dame players who out-performed their draft position.
Former United States president Harry S. Truman (1945-53) reportedly stated “The ‘C’ students run the world.” Like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among others, before him, Truman did not possess a college degree.
In perhaps that same vein, the NFL is dominated by fourth- to seventh-round picks, similar to college football having the bulk of its players comprised of athletes who were ranked with three or less stars.
That is mathematically natural because the volume is going to be larger among them. That is not even including free agents through the years who also made rosters and often contributed significantly. Among the better ones under current Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly have been defensive end Romeo Okwara and safety Matthias Farley following the 2015 campaign.
Here are our top dozen Notre Dame surprises in the NFL who originally weren’t thought of having what it takes to thrive in the NFL.
12t. Ray Lemek, 1956, 19th Round, No. 227 And Mike Golic, 1985, 10th Round, No. 255
Back in the 1950s when there were 30 rounds and only 12 teams, offensive lineman Lemek was tabbed way down but ended up playing nine years, and made the Pro Bowl in 1961 for the Washington Redskins.
Golic battled injuries as an Irish senior while his pro stock dropped. He still suited up for eight years and 115 NFL games (49 starts), mostly on head coach Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles defenses.
11. Theo Riddick, 2013, Sixth Round, No. 199
Now in his ninth year in the league, he is currently with the Las Vegas Raiders. The leading rusher for the 2012 Fighting Irish who advanced to the national title game in 2012 (917 rushing yards, plus 36 catches for 360 yards), has been one of the top pass catchers in the backfield during his NFL career, nabbing 285 (14 for touchdowns), and also rushed for 1,023 yards in his career.
10. John Sullivan, 2008, Sixth Round, No. 187
The former Fighting Irish center played 10 full seasons in the NFL (sat out 2015 with an injury) and started in 125 regular season games out of a possible 153. This included all 16 in 2018 (plus three in the playoffs for the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams) before retiring in 2019.
9. Steve Sylvester, 1975, 10th Round, No. 259
A starting offensive tackle for the 1973 national title team, Sylvester’s low draft status made him opt to go into teaching right after the event — until a friend advised him to give the NFL a try because he shouldn’t ask later “what if?”
Sylvester played for three Super Bowl champions (1976, 1980 and 1983) while with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, where he appeared in 106 games as the utility man who played every position along the line, including long snapper.
8. David Givens, 2002, Seventh Round, No. 253
Taken in the final round, and only eight picks away from becoming “Mr. Irrelevant,” Givens became a favorite target of Tom Brady on Super Bowl champion New England in 2003 and 2004.
Givens caught only 72 passes and three touchdowns in four seasons with the Irish — but he snared at least one TD in seven straight playoff games, including back-to-back Super Bowls.
7. Pete Holohan, 1981, Seventh Round, No. 189
Originally a quarterback recruit and then a flanker at Notre Dame, where he never caught more than 22 passes in a season, he became a prolific tight end in the NFL. His 363 career receptions were nearly as many as Hall of Fame member Dave Casper (378), and a dozen ahead of Mark Bavaro (351). Holohan totaled 12 years on four teams.
6. Jim Mutscheller, 1952, 12th Round, No. 134
The captain of Frank Leahy’s 1951 team was in the Marines his first two years after graduating. When he tried out in 1954 for the Baltimore Colts, he was told he had “Army legs” — good for marching but not for running — and barely made the final cut on a team vote.
The tight end became a top target for Johnny Unitas, and also was twice voted the franchise’s top blocker. He and Mike Ditka were among the first great receiving tight ends in league history.
5. Wayne Millner, 1936, Eighth Round, No. 65
There were only nine rounds and 81 picks in this first draft, but Millner made the most of his low selection by becoming the favorite target of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh for the Boston Redskins, who moved to Washington, D.C., in 1937 and beat the Chicago Bears 28-21 to win the NFL title. Millner caught 78- and 55-yard touchdowns from Baugh in that championship game.
Millner was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968 even though his NFL career was interrupted when he served in World War II for three years.
4. Ryan Grant, 2005, Undrafted
Despite running a 4.43 at the NFL Combine, he was not drafted, and nearly bled to death when he cut himself on glass in an off-field accident. Doctors said he might not regain full function of his wounded arm.
The Green Bay Packers picked him up in 2007 — and he became one of the NFL’s premier backs from 2007-09, finishing with 956, 1,203 and 1,253 rushing yards in those respective years. That’s not including a 201-yard effort in a 2007 playoff victory.
An ankle injury sidelined Grant during the 2010 Super Bowl run, but he returned to the Packers in 2012.
3. Daryle Lamonica, 1963, 12th Round, No. 168
“The Mad Bomber” quarterback was 12-18 during his Notre Dame career under head coach Joe Kuharich, but in the 1962 East-West Shrine game while playing for Northwestern head coach Ara Parseghian, Lamonica drew some notice from scouts by completing 20 of 28 pass attempts for 349 yards during a 25-19 victory.
A two-time MVP in the AFL, the 12-year pro made the NFL Pro Bowl twice when the two leagues merged in 1970, after he had guided the Raiders into the 1968 Super Bowl versus Green Bay.
Lamonica passed for 19,154 yards and 164 touchdowns during his pro career, but more notable is his 66-16-6 record as a starter is good for a .784 winning percentage — which has been second in league history to Otto Graham’s .810, with Brady always a threat to get to No. 1.
2. Rocky Bleier, 1968, 16th Round, No. 417
Already deemed too small and too slow to make it in the NFL, a shattered leg in 1969 while serving in the Vietnam War then left doubts about whether he would be able to walk again without a limp.
Instead, he played 11 years for the Pittsburgh Steelers, helping them win four Super Bowl titles while rushing for 3,865 yards, catching 136 passes and serving as a superb blocker for running back Franco Harris and quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
1. Nick Buoniconti, 1962, Undrafted
Not selected in any of the 20 NFL rounds because he also was classified as too small and slow to line up at linebacker, Buoniconti was chosen in the 13th round by the inferior AFL.
During his 15-year career from 1962-76 in which he played 183 games, he was exceptional against the run and pass (32 career interceptions), and was selected to the All-Time AFL Team (six-time All-AFL pick).
After the leagues merged, he made the Pro Bowl for Miami in 1972 and 1973 — when the Dolphins were Super Bowl champs with 17-0 and 15-2 records — and was the leader of the vaunted “No Name” defense. He was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Bunoiconti passed away in July 2019 at age 78.
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Watch our videos and subscribe to our YouTube channel.
• Sign up for Blue & Gold’s news alerts and daily newsletter.
• Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts.
• Like us on Facebook.