He was called “The Mad Duck”, “Tippy Toes”, and “Pig” by his teammates who were often victims of his practical jokes. Bigger than life on and off the field, Alex Karras became one of the game’s greatest defensive tackles in a brilliant and sometimes stormy All-Pro career before moving to Hollywood and applying his keen sense of humor and innate acting ability to embark on a successful film and television career.
His passing on Wednesday at age 77 makes many feel just a little bit older.
Nine years ago Karras made his last public appearance in Detroit when he participated in the “Paper Lion Reunion” with author and friend George Plimpton and most of his teammates from the 1963 Detroit Lions squad that had been the subject of the writer’s best selling book.
It was the first time in over 20 years that Karras had made a public appearance in Detroit and it had been over 30 years since he had see many of his teammates that he had battled with in the trenches at Tiger Stadium.
A year earlier I had called George Plimpton in New York to see if he would come back to Detroit and reunite with his Lion teammates for a 40th anniversary reunion. For several months I worked with Tom Nowatkze, the Detroit Lion Alumni President, former teammate Dan LaRose, and Tim Pendell of the Lions to put together a weekend of festivities that included a Saturday night charity dinner and the half time recognition.
Many of the former Lions that I had to track down had not been in touch with each other nor had stayed connected with the franchise. They were eager to come back.
However, Alex Karras had essentially been estranged from the team since he left in 1971 and was very ambivalent about returning. He had not even witnessed an NFL game in person since he left Monday Night Football in 1976.
I reached out to Karras’s very close friend Tom McInerney, the Detroit area auto dealer to help lure #71 back to Detroit. Tom worked his magic. Alex and his wife, actress Susan Clark, stayed at Tom and Jackie McInerney’s Bloomfield Hills home during the reunion weekend where a private party was held for Karras, his teammates. and close Detroit area friends.
On September 21, 2003, Alex Karras and George Plimpton, both sporting Lion jerseys with their numbers 71 and 0 walked to midfield for the coin toss as the honorary co-captains for the game between Detroit and Minnesota at Ford Field.
At halftime players and coaches from the 1963 team and the 1968 squad who had been part of the movie Paper Lion were individually introduced at mid-field in front of 60,865 fans.
Karras received a huge ovation from the appreciative crowd after Sam Williams, Darris McCord, and Roger Brown were introduced as the famous defensive front line nicknamed the “Fearsome Foursome” stood together for what turned out to be the last time.
As Karras walked off the gridiron for the very last time, he walked over to the railing and signed autographs for several of his admirers. He had clearly enjoyed himself and greatly appreciated the very warm reception he had received.
A week before the reunion I had interviewed Karras for a feature story in the Detroit Free Press.
“I am really looking forward to seeing all the guys and putting the memories back together,” he told me.
We talked at length about his Detroit Lions career and his approach to the game.
Although light for a tackle at 6’2 248 pounds and blind as a bat without his black horned rimmed glasses on, Karras used his quickness, agility and aggressiveness first honed from his high school fullback days to shoot through and around “the pit”.
“I figured out early on that if you wanted to play in the line, you have to be a matador,” he said. “You don’t want to take a banging every time. In the passing game, the minute you collide it takes seconds and that’s all the backfield needs. I was a bullfighter,” Karras said.
He clearly treasured the game and the fans in Detroit.
“I loved Tiger Stadium and Wrigley Field in Chicago because the crowds were part of the game. It kept me up and encouraged me. The Lion fans were terrific. I had a wonderful time in Detroit, and even though I we didn’t win a championship, I am proud to say we played to win and were always in the game.”
Many have wondered why arguably the NFL’s preeminent tackle of the1960s has not been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many believe it was largely due in part to his constant stinging criticism of Pete Rozelle after the NFL Commissioner singled out Karras and Green Bay star Paul Hornung by suspending them for one year in 1963 for gambling on games. (Karras was never accused of betting against the Lions)
Karras said he refused to apologize to Rozelle, unlike Paul Hornung who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986. He also told me he was working on a movie script about the famous gambling incident.
During his 1963 suspension, Karras wrestled, and tended bar at the Lindell A.C. in Detroit, of which he was part owner until he was forced to sell his interest as a condition for reinstatement. One week after his suspension was announced, and just days after a staged pre-match challenge with wrestler “Dick the Bruiser” went awry and turned into the Lindell’s most famous brawl, (sending police officers to the hospital and fans to the ticket gate) the two wrestled at Olympia Stadium before a sellout crowd. Although Bruiser won the match in 11 minutes, Karras was handsomely rewarded.
“For that one night’s work, I made $17,000, $4,000 more than I made with the Lions” he said. “Actually, I think I made more money working for Hoot and Tom McInerney selling cars in the off season than I did in my football career. But that was a different era, and before agents.”
At the end of our phone conversation, I asked Alex if he’d feel like hitting somebody should the old pre-game adrenaline come back when he walked onto the Ford Field gridiron.
He hesitated on the phone. “No, I think I’ll probably cry.”
Alex Karras was a true original, a multi-talented man who is sorely missed by his many friends and admirers.