In an era when NFL interior defensive linemen typically are 300-pound-plus gargantuans, Alex Karras, whose weight hovered in the 250-pound range during his 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions, might be considered out of place. There was little, though, either physically or emotionally, that was undersized about Karras, who died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calf., after a brief bout with kidney failure.
"He was a giant of a man with a big heart, a great sense of humor, and very grounded outlook on life," recalled actor Emmanuel Lewis, who played the role of Karras' munchkin-sized adoptive son, Webster, on the 1980s television sitcom of the same name. "He might have towered over you . . . but he had a knack of being able get down to your level without being small about it."
Karras was 77. In addition to the kidney failure, he also suffered from cancer, and was diagnosed several years ago with dementia. He was among the more than 2,000 former NFL players who have filed lawsuits against the league for what they feel was inadequate treatment of head injuries. Karras was part of a class that sued the NFL earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
After being hospitalized for the kidney condition, Karras, at his request, was moved to his home last weekend, where he received hospice care.
A three-time All-Pro, Karras played for the Lions from 1958-62 and 1964-70, and was the club's first-round choice, the 10th player selected overall in the '58 draft. The Iowa product appeared in 161 games at a time when tackle totals were infamously subjective and sacks were not yet a league-recognized statistic, and so, other than the 16 fumble recoveries and four interceptions for which Karras is credited, there is scant numerical information with which to quantify his football career. Karras was good enough, however, to earn Pro Bowl honors four times, and to have been named to the NFL's All-Decade team for the 1960s. As a collegian, he won the prestigious Outland Trophy, awarded to the country's premier interior lineman, in 1957. That same year, Karras was the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
His contribution to the NFL went well beyond statistics. It would be hyperbole to suggest that Karras reshaped the game. But he almost certainly helped to rewrite the manual for playing a tackle position that was fairly nondescript at the time.
"He was such a strong player, dominant at times, one of the (men) who really raised the importance of the (defensive) tackle position," said former Detroit teammate and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Joe Schmidt. "He took the position beyond the 'grunt guy' level who just played the inside run. But even with all the Pro Bowls and stuff, Alex probably still was underrated. A great player, though, really."
Despite the sham nature generally associated with professional wrestling, Karras credited the ring sport, in which he participated twice during his football career, for improving his quickness and leverage.
Acknowledged former Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer, whose battles with Karras formed one of the NFL's most profiled "trench" rivalries of the era, a few years ago: "Alex did things that tackles of that time weren't supposed to be able to do. He was a load. But he was a load who made a lot of plays. Alex was really a handful."
Kramer offered that Karras and Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen were the best tackles against whom he played in the NFL.
Along with teammate Roger Brown, Karras comprised one of the NFL's top defensive inside tandems. The Lions were 78-72-12 during his tenure, and had six winning campaigns in that stretch. With the postseason limited in that era, the Lions qualified only once for the playoffs, earning a wild card berth with a 10-4 record in 1970. The club's 5-0 loss at Dallas that year marked Karras' lone postseason appearance and also his final game; he was released by the Lions after that season.
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Arguably his most notable blemish on a standout career was Karras' suspension in 1963. Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle banished Karras and Packers' star halfback Paul Hornung for the entire '63 season after they admitted to betting on NFL games. Karras spent some of the year-long suspension wresting, a sport that he'd also sampled before signing with the Lions in '58. The two players were reinstated for the 1964 campaign.
In his first season back in the league, Karras, as a team captain, declined to call the coin-toss before one game, informing the referee: "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm not allowed to gamble."
The remark exemplified the humor, often self-deprecating, that Karras displayed during his career, teammates pointed out. It was also an example of the quick wit that would make Karras successful years after his playing days culminated. To an entire generation, the fact Karras was such an accomplished player, one mentioned at various times as a potential Hall of Fame candidate, although he has never been inducted at Canton, is secondary to his work as an actor and color analyst on Monday Night Football contests.
It was during a three-year stint in the MNF booth that Karras often lampooned other players, particularly foreign-born kickers. "Keek ball, ween game," he cited as the mantra of kickers, feigning disdain for the position. But the cartoonish figure that Karras played in the Monday broadcasts and several movies -- he had a prominent role in the 1968 film adaptation of George Plimpton's acclaimed sports book "Paper Lion," played an Olympic weightlifter in "The 500-Pound Jerk" in 1973 and was the slow-witted Mongo in the '74 classic "Blazing Saddles," among his screen credits -- belied the thoughtful, often earthly-but-wise person that Karras could be in real life.
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In the mid-1990s, at a charity assembly in Atlanta for underprivileged children, Falcons kicker and event host Morten Andersen, mistook the tiny Emmanuel Lewis for one of the kids benefiting from the evening. Hoisting a tuxedoed Lewis onto a chair so that the two would be at eye-level, Andersen said, "Hey, little guy, how are you? Having a good time?" After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, Lewis revealed his identity to a sheepish Andersen, telling the star kicker: "Alex told me about you (kickers). But, hey, you're a good guy, just like (Karras)."
Indeed, it was the sage father figure he portrayed in "Webster", as George Papadapolis, an adoptive father, for which Karras was known to many fans who have watched the sitcom in re-runs. Karras' wife on the show, the actress Susan Clark, was also his real-life wife, and she has noted in recent years that her husband was far closer to the fictional figure than to the nasty and sometimes reviled defensive tackle he was in the NFL for a dozen seasons.
Reminded a few years past that in "Blazing Saddles," Karras, who as Mongo famously decked a horse, characterized himself as "only (a) pawn in (the) game of life." Clark disagreed.
"No, he is more of a knight," she said.