In recent years, an inordinate number of Notre Dame players went undrafted but latched on to an NFL team as a free agent and were on an NFL roster — in some cases even as a starter.
Nick Buoniconti wasn’t drafted in any of the 20 NFL rounds in 1962, but played well enough to get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Among them were safety Sergio Brown (2006-09), running backs Armando Allen, Robert Hughes (2007-10) and Jonas Gray (2008-11), cornerback Darrin Walls (2006-10), nose guard Ian Williams (2007-10) and, most recently, offensive lineman Trevor Robinson (2008-11).
Undrafted last spring, the former guard Robinson was picked up by the Bengals and he ended up starting their last nine games at center, inclduing a playoff loss. In the process, he overtook fellow Notre Dame alumnus and 10-year NFL veteran Jeff Faine, a first-round pick in 2003.
Robinson, and others, could some day join this list of the top 10 Notre Dame surprises in the NFL who originally weren’t thought of having what it takes to thrive in “The League.”
10. Ray Lemek, 1956, 19th round, No. 227 & Mike Golic Sr., 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. However, he also suited up nine years in the NFL, mostly as a starter.
9. Steve Sylvester, 1975, 10th round, No. 259
A starting offensive tackle for the 1973 national title team, Sylvester wasn’t coveted by the pros. After getting drafted so low, he realized he wouldn’t make the pros and opted to go into teaching right after the draft — 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 Famer 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 for the NFL title, 28-21. Millner caught 78- and 55-yard touchdowns from Baugh in that championship game.
Millner was enshrined in 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 yards rushing. 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 — second in league history to Otto Graham’s .810.
2. Rocky Bleier, 1968, 16th round, No. 417
One of the most inspirational stories in football history, Bleier was deemed too small and too slow to make it in the NFL, and a shattered leg in 1969 while serving in the Vietnam War 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 by NFL
Not selected in any of the 20 NFL rounds because he 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.