Alex Karras. (Joe Lippincott / Detroit Free Press)
Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY Sports
Alex Karras, a bull-necked defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions who chased NFL quarterbacks on muddy fields more than 50 years ago but was ahead of his time as a multimedia personality, died early Wednesday morning in Los Angeles. He was 77.
The Detroit Lions confirmed his death to USA TODAY Sports.
"After a heroic fight with kidney disease, heart disease, dementia and for the last two years, stomach cancer, Alex Karras ... died at his home in Los Angeles early this morning, surrounded by family," the Karras family said in a statement released by the Lions.
Karras never slowed down after a 13-year NFL career -- he was suspended one season for gambling -- turning to an acting career he'd built in previous off-seasons. He appeared in movies, TV shows and commercials, and spent three years (1974-76) in the Monday Night Football booth, once declaring, "I'm the bridge between Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. I'm there to have a little fun."
He did. Karras once saw steam rising from the clean-shaven head of Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Otis Sistrunk and remarked that he was from "The University of Mars."
Though Karras is not a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he made the Pro Bowl four times, and the Hall of Fame named him a member of the 1960s All-Decade team.
Karras was an iron man. He missed only one game due to injury in his 12 NFL seasons and his 161 games played are the 15th most in Lions history.
Karras stood 6-2 and played at about 250 pounds. That's linebacker size in today's football and was not considered big for a defensive tackle even in the 1960s. But he was powerful and quick with choppy steps to get him through traffic in the trenches.
"I was a little different than most guys at my position. I wasn't as big," he told the Des Moines Register in a 1977 interview. "The guys now don't play the lateral game I did. I'd run around the opposition, not through them. Linemen today weigh 290 and can lift houses. They play a different game, but they're damn good."
Karras was diagnosed with dementia about seven years ago, at age 70. Last April, he joined in a lawsuit against the NFL. Suits by more than 3,000 former players allege the league knowingly failed to warn players about long-term brain damage from concussions. His wife, actress Susan Clark, joined in the suit.
Busy acting career
For generations of TV fans who never watched him play, Karras may be remembered for his starring role in the 1980s series Webster. He played George Papadapolis, a former football player turned sportscaster and the adoptive father of the title character Webster, an African-American boy. Karras' wife played his wife in the series (1983-1987).
For movie buffs, Karras played himself in the 1968 film Paper Lion, based on George Plimpton's book about his training camp tryout with Detroit. Long before HBO's Hard Knocks, the film delivered an inside look at an NFL training camp. That led to other acting roles for Karras.
"I worked a lot," he said. "I finally ended up making as much money in the off-season as I was playing football. I said, 'What am I doing?' and retired from football (after the 1970 season)," Karras told the Associated Press in 1980.
In the 1974 western comedy Blazing Saddles, he turned a small part into the memorable role of Mongo, the bad guy who rode into town on the back of a Brahma bull and knocked out a horse with one punch. One of his lines: "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
In 1982, Karras took another memorable turn as a crooked sheriff in the comedy film Porky's.
In TV movies, he played a backwoods weight lifter in The 500 Pound Jerk (1973) and the husband of athlete Babe Didrikson Zaharias in Babe (1975). His wife, Susan, played Babe.
Football was his launching pad to prominence. A native of Gary, Ind., Karras starred at the University of Iowa. As a senior in 1957 he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman and finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, won by Texas A&M running back John David Crowe.
Karras, known for being both gregarious and outspoken, didn't have a warm and fuzzy relationship with Iowa coach Forest Evashevski. "There is nothing I liked about Forest Evashevski. How could I begin talking about a man I totally disliked?" Karras told the Register. "I didn't like that 1957 Rose Bowl game we won from Oregon State. Oh, I played all right, but we didn't have any fun.''
Karras once joked, "I never graduated college, but I was only there for two terms - Truman's and Eisenhower's."
Battled with Rozelle
Detroit made him the 10th overall pick in the 1958 draft.
In the early 1960s, Karras played alongside standout tackle Roger Brown. They teamed with ends Darris McCord and Sam Williams in a defensive front that was dubbed "The Fearsome Foursome."
That nickname was usurped in ensuing seasons by the Los Angeles Rams defensive line that included Hall of Famers Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, along with Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier. Roger Brown joined the Rams line when he was traded by Detroit in 1967 and replaced Grier.
Karras' statistical data on NFL.com does not list quarterbacks sacks because the statistic wasn't kept for defensive players in his era. In 12 seasons with the Lions, he played on six winning teams.
His NFL resume does not include the 1963 season. That year, he and Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung were suspended by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for betting on games and associating with gamblers.
"I don't like Pete Rozelle," Karras told the Des Moines Register in that 1977 interview. "I don't talk to him. I don't know if he likes that or not. I don't think he cares. He suspended me for one season for betting on games, and that was a bull (bleep) rap."
While suspended, Karras took part in pro wrestling. He'd been doing some pro wrestling since the late 1950s. Among his opponents: Dick the Bruiser.
After Karras' return to the NFL, before one game he displayed his usual dry wit in declining a referee's request to call the coin toss.
"I'm sorry, sir, I'm not permitted to gamble," he said.
In his final season (1970), the Lions went 10-4 and made the playoffs for the first time in his NFL career. In the divisional round of the playoffs, Detroit did not yield a touchdown but lost 5-0 to the Dallas Cowboys.
It was the first and last taste of postseason play for Karras, but he had plenty of roles ahead. Movies, TV shows and Monday Night Football came calling.
He was in demand just as he was when the Lions drafted him in 1958, although he once summed up his NFL draft day experience in vintage Karras style.
"I made a collect call to the Lions after they drafted me," he said, "and they wouldn't accept it."