Alex Karras helped pave the way for football players like Micheal Strahan to go from the anonymity of the NFL trenches into American living rooms.
Born in Gary, Indiana, on this date in 1935, Alexander George Karras was the fourth of George Karras and Emmeline Wilson’s six children. His father was a Greek immigrant who graduated from the University of Chicago and became a doctor. His mother, who was Canadian, was a nurse. The family lived in an apartment above their medical practice before Dr. George Karras died when Alex was 13. The following year, he enrolled at Emerson High School in Gary, where he followed in the footsteps of his older brothers and became an all-state lineman. The oldest Karras child, Louis, was a three-year starter at Purdue who went on to play for the Washington Redskins. The next in line, Ted, played at Indiana University before winning an NFL championship as a starting guard for the 1963 Chicago Bears. Alex left the Hoosier state to attend the University of Iowa, where the fiercely independent Karras had a strained relationship with coach Forest Evashevski, a strict disciplinarian. After not playing in the season finale as a sophomore, Karras threw a shoe at his coach and quit the team. He was reinstated the following year, but quit again after not getting to start in the season opener. Karras and “Evy” came to an agreement and the 6’2”, 248 pound tackle helped the Hawkeyes to their first-ever Rose Bowl, where they beat Oregon State, 35-19. Karras was named first team All-American. In 1957, Karras was again named first team All-American. In addition, he won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting, the only defensive lineman in history to finish runner-up in the balloting. Karras left Iowa without a degree. “I never graduated college, but I was only there for two terms—Truman’s and Eisenhower’s.”
In 1958, the Detroit Lions selected Alex Karras with the tenth overall pick of the NFL Draft. Fierce and relentless, he quickly became, along with Bob Lilly [Daily Dose, July 24] and Merlin Olsen, one of the dominant defensive tackles in the NFL. After appearing in three Pro Bowls, Karras—along with Green Bay Packer golden boy Paul Hornung—for the 1963 season for betting on NFL games. Pete Rozelle [Daily Dose, March 1], in his second season as NFL Commissioner, wanted to make a strong anti-gambling statement while demonstrating his power to team owners. Karras was incensed, believing the ruling was overly harsh. Mr. Karras claimed for years that he named one of his sons after Rozelle as a way of remembering the humbling experience of his suspension when, in fact, he had named his son after Karras’ father-in-law. “Yeah, I named him after Rozelle,” Karras later recalled, “which is a lie, ‘cause I wouldn’t name anyone after that buzzard.” During the suspension, he dabbled in pro wrestling, taking on “Dick the Bruiser” at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in 1963. Karras returned to the Lions for the 1964 season before being named to the Pro Bowl the following year. When asked after his return by an official to call the pregame coin toss, a cheeky Karras refused. “I’m sorry sir,” he deadpanned, “but I’m not permitted to gamble.” An iron man, the “Mad Duck” only missed one start in 12 NFL seasons. He retired after the 1971 campaign.
During NFL off seasons, Karras studied acting. Lucille Ball took him under her wing and allowed him to train in small acting roles. He played himself in Paper Lion, a film adaptation of George Plimpton’s novel, was a regular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and had a starring role in the television series, Webster. His greatest role may have been as Mongo, the monosyllabic, horse-punching brute in Mel Brooks’ comedy Blazing Saddles. Mr. Karras spent three seasons in the broadcast booth alongside Howard Cosell [Daily Dose, January 4] and Frank Gifford on Monday Night Football and wrote an autobiography, Even Big Guys Cry.
Before the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters or Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh, there was the “Fearsome Foursome” of the Detroit Lions, a nickname later usurped by the Los Angeles Rams [Daily Dose, December 9]. Alex Karras was the heart and soul of that group. Small by today’s NFL standards, the 6’2”, 248 pound Karras demonstrated a savage, bustling style of attack to get to the quarterback. He used strength, speed and caginess to play sideline-to-sideline and possessed a variety of moves and techniques to defeat blockers. “He would stutter-step you like a ballet dancer,” recalled former New York Giants offensive lineman Doug Van Horn. One of the greatest ever to wear the Lions’ Honolulu Blue and Silver, Karras was named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team and made four Pro Bowls, but he played on undistinguished Lions teams that only made one playoff appearance. He was not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an unofficial blackballing many believe is due to antagonism of Pete Rozelle. Mr. Karras was chosen as one of four players on the “Mount Rushmore of Iowa Football” and is a member of the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame. In 1991, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Alexander George Karraas died October 10, 2012 from kidney disease, heart disease, stomach cancer and dementia. He was 77.