Notre Dame’s Best NFL Steals

During Combine Week, primary attention is on the first couple of rounds — the NFL’s version of testing or measuring the “five star” player. Then as you get into the third or fourth rounds, they become “four stars,” followed by the two or three stars in the latter rounds, which today end at seven.

Nick Buoniconti made the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a brilliant career from 1962-76.

Who were Notre Dame’s most successful “two-star” (or unheralded) NFL prospects? Here is our top 10 countdown:

10. Ray Lemek, 1956, 19th round, No. 227 & Mike Golic Sr., 1985, 10th round, No. 255
Back in the day when there were 30 rounds and only 12 teams, Lemek was tabbed way down the list. He ended up playing nine years in the league, starting four straight years along the offensive line for the Washington Redskins and making the Pro Bowl in 1961.

A famed radio and TV personality on ESPN, Golic battled injuries as a senior while his stock dropped, but ended up playing nine years in the NFL while starting along the defensive line next to luminaries such as Reggie White and Jerome Brown on Buddy Ryan’s defenses at Philadelphia.

9. Steve Sylvester, 1975, 10th round, No. 259
A product of Cincinnati Moeller High, Sylvester started at offensive tackle his last two seasons at Notre Dame, highlighted by the 1973 national title. The pros didn’t covet him, and he decided to go into teaching instead of continuing to play football — until a friend advised him to give it a try. 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 — and became a regular.

8. David Givens, 2002, 7th 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. He also caught at least one TD in seven straight playoff games, including back-to-back Super Bowls, parlaying it into a $24 million contract at Tennessee before tearing his ACL that forced him out of football.

7. Pete Holohan, 1981, 7th 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, mainly at San Diego and Los Angeles, were nearly as many as Hall-of-Fame 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, catching 220 passes for 3,685 yards and 40 TDs during an eight-year career (he missed only one game), highlighted by a 1957 Pro Bowl and 1958 NFL title, 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, 8th 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 Washington Redskins. Millner, George Connor, Paul Hornung and Alan Page are the only Notre Dame players who are in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.

4. Ryan Grant, Not drafted in 2005
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 playoff victory.

3. Daryle Lamonica, 1963, 12th round, No. 168
“The Mad Bomber” was 12-18 during his Notre Dame career under Joe Kuharich but he flourished at quarterback during a 12-year NFL stay. A two-time MVP in the AFL, he also made the NFL Pro Bowl twice when the two leagues merged in 1970. His 66-16-4 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 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, Not Drafted in 1962 by NFL
Not selected in any of the 20 NFL rounds because he too was classified as too small and slow, Buoniconti was tabbed in the 13th round by the inferior AFL. During his amazing 15-year career from 1962-76 in which he played 183 games, the linebacker 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.

Tomorrow: Notre Dame’s greatest players who had abbreviated or interrupted NFL careers.

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