In the pages of The Sporting News, Alex Karras was once described as “Jackie Gleason wearing cleated shoes.”
The defensive standout who played tackle for the Lions for a dozen seasons from 1958 to 1970, minus one year when he was suspended for having bet on NFL games, passed away in Los Angeles on Tuesday at the age of 77.
Karras was an odd mixture of mirth and madness: just as likely to tickle you under your armpits as he was to slam your body to the ground in a crushing tackle. He was crazy enough to earn the nickname “The Mad Duck”, but sweet enough to play the part of a sensitive adoptive father in the popular 1980s TV sitcom Webster.
As a teenager, Karras was one of the best high school football players in Indiana, starring for his prep team in Gary. He was recruited by many colleges, but chose Iowa after the coaches there established a good relationship with the high-strung young Alex. At Iowa Karras enjoyed success in an atmosphere of controversy – a situation that would pepper his football career.
Karras never got along well with coach Forest Evashevski at Iowa, quitting the team on more than one occasion. Eventually he agreed to stay under the condition that the temperamental Evashevski would leave him alone. Karras blossomed as a Hawkeye, helping the team to their first Rose Bowl in 1957, when they defeated Oregon State. Karras beamed with pride upon the triumph.
“This is what a football player lives for,” he said in the locker room after the Bowl victory.
In his senior season, Karras was a man among boys on the gridiron. He earned a reputation as the toughest, meanest lineman on the defensive side of the football. He won the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country, was named All-American, and he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. Before Karras, a lineman had never finished that high in Heisman tallying.
The Lions plucked Karras in the first round of the NFL Draft in 1958 and he proceeded to make mincemeat of offensive linemen in the NFL as well. He was a four-time All-Pro and he was selected to the All-Decade Team for the 1960s. With the Lions he stood out for his aggressive pursuit of enemy quarterbacks and ball carriers, but even while doing that he could prove to be comical. One teammate noticed that Karras looked like “a mad duck or a girl wearing a tight skirt” while in pursuit of the QB.
No more fearsome defensive duo existed in the 1960s than Karras and Roger Brown for the Lions. The team never won a title and struggled at times in the shadow of the Green Bay Packers, but three times the defense finished second in fewest points allowed.
“We’ve got the two best tackles anywhere, maybe at any time,” said Lions’ defensive line coach Les Bingaman.
Karras was always doing something interesting away from the football field. In the late 1950s he supplemented his NFL salary by earning $25,000 to perform on the pro wrestling circuit during the off-season. Sometimes, his activities proved too interesting. In the early 1960s he purchased a controlling interest in the Lindell A.C., one of the first sports bars in the country and a gathering place for athletes and celebrities of Detroit. Located just a stone’s throw from Tiger Stadium (at that time home to both the Tigers and Lions), the Lindell A.C. was also a meeting spot for some of the least law-abiding figures of Detroit, including gamblers and rackateers. This gained the attention of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who urged Karras to sever his ties with the bar. Always stubborn, Karras refused at first, but then agreed to sell his interest, but not before he admitted to the league that he had bet on NFL games (not involving the Lions). He, as well as NFL star Paul Hornung, were suspended for one season as a result of the NFL’s enthusiastic campaign to “rid the league of gambling.”
In his year away from the football field in ’63, Karras returned to pro wrestling. When he returned to the Lions in 1964 he had not lost his sense of humor. When asked by an official to call a coin toss before a game, Karras quipped “I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to gamble.”
In 1970, Karras was 35 years old but still playing outstanding football for the Lions. He was in the middle of the defense that shut out the Packers in the final game of the season in Detroit’s 20-0 victory to secure a playoff spot – the first of Alex’s career. The next week against Dallas, Karras and the Lions defense didn’t allow a touchdown, but the team still lost the game, 5-0. It was the final of Karras’s career.
Karras’s film and television career began before his football career was finished. In 1968 he played himself in Paper Lion, the film version of George Plimpton’s book about being a football player. Karras appeared in several shows and had minor parts in movies in the early 1970s. His biggest gig of that era was as a color commentator on Monday Night Football for three seasons. He was one of the first ex-players to be in the booth for the Monday NFL games.
As an actor, Karras had a range as wide as his arm span: he played a homosexual in Victor Victoria, a frontier settler in Centennial, a hapless comedic foil in shows like The Odd Couple, a dark villain in the film Against All Odds, and in one of his most memorable movie roles he was “Mongo”, a simple-minded brute in the 1974 comedy classic Blazing Saddles.
As George Papadapolis (an homage to Alex’s own Greek heritage) on Webster from 1983-1989, Karras played opposite Emmanuel Lewis and his real-life wife, Susan Clark in his longest-running and perhaps most famous role.
Karras was a renaissance man of his times: he was one of the greatest players to ever don a Lions uniform, earning a place on their All-Time Team; he was honored by the University of Iowa as the greatest defensive tackle in school history; he starred in a top 10 sitcom that he went on to share production duties for; he wrestled the biggest names in the country in venues in front of 50,000 fans; he wrote books and earned honorary degrees.
He was a man as likely to make you laugh as he was to make you yell, “Great tackle!”