The game of football can be a brutal and violent sport.
To play it, one has to have a bit of a mean streak with a sharp edge to boot.
When viewing the world of professional football from the outside, fans typically see their athletes beaten, battered and bloody.
However, perception is not always accurate.
The history of the NFL is filled with players who were brutes on the field but gentle off of it.
Alex Karras was one such player.
Karras was a pain in the rear for coaches and opponents.
He was known as one of the toughest players in the NFL, capable of demoralizing the man in front of him.
Off the field, Karras was a practical joker who was also known to have a fantastic sense of humor.
After retiring from the league, Karras moved on to acting where he starred in various movies and a well known sitcom of the 1980s.
Without a doubt, his off-field persona contradicted what people saw when he was on the gridiron.
This is the story of Alex Karras
Born #OTD 1935 NFL Great and Poular Actor Alex Karras#NFL #Lions #Detroit #Hollywood #1960s #TV #movies pic.twitter.com/Arw6Zd3BHg
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) July 15, 2021
Growing up and a Stealthy College Recruiting “Trip”
Alexander George Karras was born on July 15, 1935 in Gary, Indiana.
He was part of a brood of siblings who gravitated to sports as if their life depended on it.
When Karras was at Gary Emerson High School, he played basketball, baseball and football. He was selected All-State four times while playing guard, tight end and fullback.
Karras’ older brothers, Louis and Teddy, both played sports as well.
The elder Karras brothers eventually played college football and played in the NFL with the Redskins and Bears, respectively.
As Karras was nearing his high school graduation, there were a large number of colleges clamoring for his services.
His brothers had played for Purdue and Indiana and Karras was leaning toward Indiana himself. The University of Iowa was very eager to bring Karras to Iowa City and took steps to ensure he would attend.
After he graduated, a couple of coaches from Iowa paid him a visit at his brother Louis’ house. The coaches and the Karras brothers got on a plane and flew to a remote cabin near Spencer, Iowa.
For the remainder of the summer, the group fished and took in the various sights of Mother Nature.
Since the cabin was remote, there was very little in the form of communication from the outside world.
That was just what the Iowa coaches wanted.
“…nobody knew where I was, not even my mom, although Louie told her not to worry,” Karras said in 1971. “Obviously, Iowa came up with something, I have no intention of stirring up any mess. I’ll only say that, as Louie explained it, some accommodations were made by the people at Iowa that would make things easier for the family, and so away I went. It was the beginning of some awful years.”
The plan worked and Karras signed his letter of intent to play for the Hawkeyes before the summer ended.
Karras would become one of the best athletes to ever suit up for the Hawkeyes.
#77 Alex Karras
Before he was Mongo or George Papadoplis, Alex Karras was perhaps the most dominant lineman Iowa has ever seen. Karras was a 2x 1st team AA (consensus in 1957), 1957 Outland Trophy winner and was runner-up in the 1957 Heisman Trophy. Drafted by the Detroit Lions. pic.twitter.com/OTGn0l1s0r
— Quinn Douglas (@Quinn_Douglas_) June 15, 2019
Unfortunately, as he explained in his 1971 interview, the next four years for Karras would be mostly “awful.”
As a freshman in 1954, Karras was home sick and he had trouble adjusting to college coursework.
There was also the issue of his coach, Forest Evashevski.
Evashevski had arrived in Iowa City two years before and was trying to help the historically bad program become winners.
The coach had a particular way of doing things to reach his goal, which many times rubbed Karras the wrong way.
As Karras became a standout player for Iowa, he and Evashevski would frequently butt heads. Part of the animosity was that Karras did not want to play on both sides of the ball, as players of that era would often do.
Also, each man was stubborn in their methods of doing business, in this case, the business of football.
“Evy didn’t like me,” Karras said in 1981. “He has his own philosophy, and I didn’t agree with him.”
Former Iowa teammate Randy Duncan further explained the relationship Karras had with his coach.
“I think Karras hated Evy for a lot of reasons. Evy was on everybody’s back, and he was on Karras’ back big time. Karras was a great football player, but he didn’t really like offense and, in those days, you had to go both ways. So he didn’t block anybody. What he wanted to do was chase down quarterbacks and play defense.”
Throughout their time together, Karras either quit or was kicked off the Iowa team seven times. He also threw a shoe at Evashevski and stormed out of the locker room when he did not get the playing time he wanted.
Becoming an All-American
Despite the temper tantrums, Karras was permitted to return to the program after each falling out with his coach.
The primary reason for the numerous reconciliations may have been that Karras was one of the best players on the Hawkeyes.
The late Alex Karras, looking so young at Iowa, Hollywood still many years away. (photo from U of I) pic.twitter.com/PBHZQcPp
— Keith Murphy (@MurphyKeith) October 10, 2012
When he did get on the field (or get the playing time he wanted) Karras was a terror.
In both the 1956 and 1957 seasons, he would be named as the Outland Trophy winner, given to the best interior lineman in college football.
His success coincided with the program’s rise from obscurity.
In 1956, Iowa went 9-1 and won the Rose Bowl against Oregon State 35-19.
One of the biggest wins of the regular season was a 48-8 blowout of rival Notre Dame.
The victory made Karras very happy.
“The Karrases have always had a rivalry with Notre Dame. The school was just sixty miles (97 km) down the road from our home and we wanted to beat ’em at anything,” he said at the time.
One year later, Karras was a runner up for the Heisman Trophy after dominating opponents with ease.
Former @Lions DT Alex Karras, runnerup for the 1957 Heisman at Iowa, becomes the 5th @HawkeyeFootball player elected to the @ProFootballHOF.
Of course, he's also Mongo. pic.twitter.com/XOUCqAVPoL
— Scott Dochterman (@ScottDochterman) January 15, 2020
That made Karras one of only three linemen in the award’s history to finish that high.
The Hawkeyes did not make it to a bowl game after ‘57 and the Detroit Lions picked Karras with the 10th overall pick in the 1958 NFL Draft.
Karras Wrestles Professionally before Reporting to Detroit
Once his college eligibility expired, Karras was approached by professional wrestling promoter “Pinky” George.
George offered Karras the sum of $25,000 to wrestle six months of the year.
The deal made it possible so he wouldn’t miss any playing time with the Lions.
George’s offer seemed to come out of nowhere as Karras had never wrestled at Iowa.
That didn’t bother the promoter, however.
“He could have been a varsity wrestler,” boasted George, “but he had to keep up his class work and couldn’t spare the time.”
When he arrived in Detroit, Karras quickly became a regular at defensive tackle.
In his rookie season of 1958, Karras started eight games and recorded three fumble recoveries (the league did not keep track of tackles at the time).
The “Mad Duck” is an All-Pro
The Lions had won the NFL Championship the year before Karras joined the team.
However, for the next two years, the franchise would only win seven games total.
By 1960, Karras was regarded as one of the best tackles in the game along with the Rams Merlin Olsen.
Alex Karras ready to pounce for the Detroit Lions. pic.twitter.com/Ek31rqxZFN
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) March 10, 2016
Karras’ movements and playing style in tenacious pursuit of the ball carrier led to the nicknames “Tippy toes” and “Mad Duck.”
During the ‘60 season, the Lions improved to 7-5 and played the Browns in the Playoff Bowl. The game was essentially a contest to see who the third-place team was after the Championship game was played.
Detroit won the game 17-16.
Karras was voted to his first Pro Bowl and was also selected as a First-team All-Pro.
1961 and 1962 had the same results as in ‘60.
“Old Days”Roger Brown and Alex Karras close in on Bart Starr on Thanksgiving Day 1962.The Lions beat the undefeated Packers 26-14 in Detroit.#NFL #Lions #Detroit #Packers #football #1960s #GreenBay pic.twitter.com/Ofsg3RUPJx
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) November 26, 2020
The Lions qualified for the Playoff Bowl both years and won both contests against the Eagles and Steelers respectively.
Karras continued to crush his opponents and was voted to his second and third Pro Bowls.
He was a First-team All-Pro again in 1961.
By then, the Lions had a front four that was among the best in the NFL. The group was known as the “Fearsome Foursome” and included Karras, Roger Brown, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams.
“I figured out early on that if you wanted to play in the line, you have to be a matador,” said Karras years later. “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,” he says. “I was a bullfighter,” Karras said.
In 1960, the league began keeping track of sacks.
Between ‘60 and 1962, Karras racked up 31.5 sacks.
Karras is Suspended for Gambling
When Karras was signed by the Lions, he bought the Lindell AC Bar in Detroit.
The bar was known as a hangout for gamblers and other degenerates.
There was also the whisper of organized crime characters who frequented the establishment. The Lions and NFL insiders strongly urged Karras to sell the place.
In no uncertain terms, Karras told them no.
He was not fond of league administrators and what he felt was meddling behavior.
In an interview with the New York Times, Karras explained his disgust with the NFL. In part, he, “…deplored the way players were treated like chattel on the one hand, deployed as seen fit, and children on the other, held to restrictive behavioral standards, scolded and disciplined.”
As the 1963 season was approaching, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle contacted Karras to tell him he had been suspended for gambling.
As a football nerd, it’s crazy to see how the NFL is in bed w/gambling! Two Pro Football HOFers, Alex Karras & Paul Hornung were suspended for the 1963 season for gambling, but nowadays try not to watch an NFL game without seeing FanDuel or DraftKings ads…Times change rapidly 😉 pic.twitter.com/8E7hKNjN6H
— Mike Malnicof (@MarvelousMike94) October 21, 2021
In an investigation of players and gambling, Karras was found to have placed at least six bets on NFL games including a Lions game.
It also didn’t help Karras that he owned a bar where gambling was currency.
Fans of the NFL were surprised to learn that Packers star Paul Hornung would also be suspended for the season due to gambling.
“I also took into account that the violations of Hornung and Karras were continuing, not casual,” Rozelle said. “They were continuing, flagrant and increasing. Both players had been informed over and over of the league rule on gambling. The rule is posted in every clubhouse in the league as well. . . . I could only exact from them the most severe penalty short of banishment for life.”
Karras Faces “Dick the Bruiser”
Since he had nothing to do for the year, Karras decided to make some money in the squared circle.
In April of 1963, he teamed up with a man named Dick Afflis, a professional wrestler who went by the handle “Dick the Bruiser.”
The two men hatched a plan to promote a wrestling match scheduled between them.
During a late night at Karras’ bar, Afflis strolled in and started talking smack to Karras and his friends.
Karras and his co-owner, James Butsicaris, told Afflis to hit the road.
Afflis then grabbed Butsicaris, leading to a brawl between him and five other patrons.
The police were called and the incident was made public.
On this day in 1966:
Wrestler Dick the Bruiser ordered to pay a @DetroitPolice officer $15K in damages after the cop tried to break up a 1963 fight between he and Detroit @Lions tackle Alex Karras at Lindell AC. pic.twitter.com/mcY2Y8Yh10
— Ken Coleman (@HistoryLivesDet) May 24, 2020
Suddenly, the masses were interested in seeing Karras exact his revenge against Afflis. Although there were many in the media that believed the bar brawl was just a publicity stunt, Afflis strongly disagreed.
“Let anyone who says this is a publicity stunt get all beat up like this and be taken by the police to the hospital,” Afflis said, who required stitches. “Then let’s see them call it a publicity stunt.”
The actual match took place later in the month and “The Bruiser” won in just over 11 minutes.
“In the early going the Bruiser was bruised, his face bloodied,” reported Ring Wrestling magazine. “The fans were surprised by the remarkable showing that Alex was making. He showed good technique, agility and a toughness that had made him one of pro football’s top lineman.”
The end result of the night was that Karras was paid handsomely, which helped cover his losses from not playing that year.
“For that one night’s work, I made $17,000, $4,000 more than I made with the Lions” Karras 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.”
Karras Returns in 1964
Any thoughts that Karras wouldn’t be the same in 1964 after a year off were quickly put to rest. During his first season back from suspension, he started in all 14 games, snagged two interceptions for 28 return yards and had 13 sacks.
Love this SI cover of Alex Karras from November 1964 @Lions pic.twitter.com/s20uCXU1Gv
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) October 4, 2019
The only reminder of the gambling issue took place before a game that season.
As kickoff was approaching, an official asked Karras, a team captain, to come out to the field for the coin toss.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Karras responded, “but I’m not permitted to gamble.”
In 1965, Karras was virtually unstoppable.
He was selected for his fourth Pro Bowl and a third First-team All-Pro nod after totaling 15 sacks.
“He was thought of, at the time, as the best defensive lineman in football,” then Bears tight end Mike Ditka said. “I know there was Big Daddy Lipscomb. There were a lot of guys. But he was the best.”
Karras kept on rolling in 1966 and ‘67.
As the Lions were mired in a 9-16-3 slump during those two years, Karras had nine and 12.5 sacks respectively.
1968-1970 and Retirement
Over the course of the next three years, Karras’ sack totals began to decline.
After posting 9.5 sacks in 1968, he had 7.5 in 1969.
In 1970, Detroit returned to the postseason after an eight-year absence.
By then, Karras was barely hanging on and only tallied two sacks for the year.
Also born OTD in 1935 is former Detroit Lions star Alex Karras, who also had an acting career after his football playing days were over @Lions pic.twitter.com/XXvrOvKgPX
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) July 15, 2018
His final game as a Lion came on the day after Christmas in 1970.
That afternoon, Detroit faced the Cowboys in the Divisional round.
The game was ugly and Dallas escaped with a 5-0 victory.
Karras tried to return in 1971.
However, as he was rehabbing a knee injury sustained the previous year, he was released by Detroit, ending his career.
In 12 years, Karras totaled 100 sacks, four interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries.
He was a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time First-team All-Pro and a six-time Second-team All-Pro.
Karras was later named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team and placed in the Lions’ Ring of Honor in 2018.
Remarkably, Karras missed only one game during his career.
Second Career on the Silver Screen
During the 1963 NFL season, writer George Plimpton joined the Lions during the pre-season. He wanted to write about life as an aspiring pro football player.
His experiences became part of his acclaimed book Paper Lion.
During his time with the team, Plimpton got to know Karras well and wrote about him in the book.
A film version of Paper Lion was made in 1968 and Karras played himself in the movie.
"In Alex Karras, he gives us what must surely be one of the most extraordinary athletes in the world, a superbly bizarre figure with his fantasies of other incarnations, his self-disgust, his tearful love of the game."
– Brian Glanville on Plimpton's Paper Lion
AK in the film pic.twitter.com/nAqCILHtrw
— Deny Fear (@dean_frey) January 15, 2020
That appearance would become the start of a movie career that spanned decades after Karras’ retirement.
After leaving Detroit, Karras appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Mary Tyler Moore Show several times.
He became an audience favorite and Karras began to receive bit parts in movies.
One of his most memorable roles came in 1974 when he played “Mongo” in the comedy film Blazing Saddles.
Alex Karras belongs in the Hall of Fame solely for his portrayal of Mongo in "Blazing Saddles." pic.twitter.com/r9FW2tbng8
— Chris Speckhard (@ChrisSpeckhard) January 15, 2020
From 1974-1976, Karras joined Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in the Monday Night Football booth.
He returned to acting after the MNF gig and had memorable roles in movies such as Porky’s and Victor Victoria.
For some, the off-beat roles may have seemed odd for a guy who had smashed people in the mouth as a football player and wrestler.
However, as former teammates recalled, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“I think he was just a really funny guy,” former Iowa teammate Randy Duncan said. “He had a sense of humor that was outstanding.”
In 1983, Karras and his second wife, actress Susan Clark, starred with a young Emmanuel Lewis in the sitcom Webster.
📺DEBUT: ‘Webster’ starring Emmanuel Lewis, Susan Clark and Alex Karras premiered 38 years ago, September 16, 1983, on ABC pic.twitter.com/aBcMnJUEeo
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) September 17, 2021
The show was extremely popular and ran until 1989.
Away from acting, Karras owned a few businesses and wrote two books, Even Big Guys Cry (1978), and Tuesday Night Football (1991).
As he got older, Karras realized life was too short to hold grudges.
In 2008, he reached out to his former college coach, Evashevski, to bury the hatchet.
“The acrimony (between the two) lasted until Evy got seriously ill and Alex reached out to Evy and they patched up their relationship,” said long time radio broadcaster Bob Brooks. “I don’t think that part is too well known.”
“I couldn’t take it any more,” Karras said about his sour relationship with Evashevski.
Fortunately, Karras patched things up with his former coach just in time.
Evashevski died in 2010.
Death and Posthumous Vote into the Hall of Fame
In early 2012, Karras’ wife, the actress Clark, revealed that her husband was suffering from dementia.
More than likely, the disease was attributable to Karras’ playing career.
“All through the time that I’ve been with him, he has suffered headaches and dizziness and high blood pressure and all kinds of things that are … usually the result of multiple concussions,” Clark said in April 2012. “This physical beating that he took as a football player has impacted his life, and therefore it has impacted his family life.”
On October 8 of that same year, it was revealed that Karras was suffering from kidney failure. Two days later, he passed away at the age of 77.
“After a heroic fight with kidney disease, heart disease, dementia and for the last two years, stomach cancer,” he died Wednesday, October 10, 2012, surrounded by family, said a spokesman for the family.
In 2020, Karras was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at long last.
Congratulations Alex Karras and family on posthumous enshrinement into the @ProFootballHOF❗️ pic.twitter.com/MzRRtJyF0o
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) May 2, 2021
He was named into the Centennial Class by the selection committee.
Karras’ Hall bio perfectly sums up his playing career.
“I never had to work myself up for a game. I hated everybody, even my teammates, I never talked to anybody.”
Karras is survived by Clark and his six children.
Richard Karsnick Sr says
Alex Karras was my favorite, all time , football player. Great write up about his life.