The life and times of Lion King, Alex Karras (1935-2012)
"Rookies and kickers," Lions Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders said of his colorful teammate, who died Wednesday at age 77. "Had no use for rookies until you proved you could play. And if there was one thing worse, it was kickers. These were the guys that would come in and be the heroes after all the blood, sweat and tears from the other guys. Alex said they think they're kicking touchdowns and getting all the credit."
Sanders laughed over the phone as he recalled the life and times of Karras, who had a personality as big as his 6-2, 248-pound frame and a charisma that served him well on the football field and during his highly successful career in broadcasting, television and movies.
Karras died after a long battle with dementia, kidney and heart disease and stomach cancer.
Known as a football player who terrorized opposing quarterbacks and a versatile performer who transitioned effortlessly to life after the NFL, Karras was one of the rare figures who transcended sports and became a part of America's pop culture.
He had a series of memorable and often hilarious performances as a commentator on "Monday Night Football" and later in the hit television sitcom "Webster" and in his role as the dimwitted cowboy "Mongo" in the movie "Blazing Saddles."
Much later in life, though, as the effect of playing 12 NFL seasons after a successful college career at the University of Iowa began to ravage his body, Karras suffered from a variety of ailments, including dementia. He became one of approximately 3,500 former players to sue the NFL for failing to adequately warn players about the dangers of head trauma. The cases have yet to come to trial.
"Alex had an air about himself, a confidence that you saw right away," Sanders said. "You wouldn't necessarily call it royalty, but you knew who was in charge. He's like the guy that's in charge of the prison yard. You always had to go through Alex and his group to fit in.
"As a rookie [in 1968], I remember just trying to stay out of his way, because he just hated rookies," Sanders said. "Didn't want to know you unless you could help the team. If you weren't a good player, he wasn't going to associate with you. When he started addressing you by name instead of 'rook,' that's when you knew you had arrived."
Sanders remembers the first time Karras called him by his first name during his first training camp. "I looked around, just to make sure he was talking to me," he said. "He had that kind of presence that made you want to be accepted."
Karras' stature as a player and personality grew even more toward the end of his career. He played himself in the 1968 film adaptation of George Plimpton's book, "Paper Lion," which detailed Plimpton's experience as a third-string quarterback at Lions training camp. Karras befriended Plimpton, even naming one of his children after the author.
But Karras was a controversial figure at one point during his NFL career, as the league investigated his relationship with gambling interests. Karras eventually admitted to betting on NFL games and was suspended along with former Packers star running back Paul Hornung for the entire 1963 season.
Karras took part in professional wrestling during his suspension and returned to the Lions the following season. Upon his return, an official asked Karras to call the pregame coin toss, but he quipped, "I'm sorry, sir. I'm not permitted to gamble."
After retiring from the NFL after the 1970 season, Karras gravitated toward acting. He had a bit part in Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles," and one of his lines would be repeated over and over, even to this day. Said Mongo, who knocked out a horse with one punch: "Mongo only pawn in game of life."
Karras spent three years (1974-76) in the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, offering his uniquely lighthearted touch. During one broadcast, cameras caught steam rising from the bald head of the Raiders' Otis Sistrunk. Karras said Sistrunk, who had not attended college, was from "the University of Mars."
Karras then went on to star as the lovable George Papadopoulos in "Webster," playing a football player turned sportscaster who was the adoptive father of Webster, a black child played by Emmanuel Lewis, and co-starring Susan Clark, his real-life wife.
"He was just so naturally funny, so what he did in TV and the movies never surprised me," Sanders said of Karras. "He was just a natural at it."