Alex Karras probably never ate as well as he did on Thanksgiving Day, 1962. That afternoon he and his Lions teammates sacked Bart Starr 10 times, forced two interceptions, and held NFL rushing leader Jim Taylor to 47 yards on 13 carries. It was Vince Lombardi’s best Packers team — 10-0 coming into the game — and Detroit’s defense reduced Lombardi’s disciplined offense to a helpless bunch.
A year later, prior to the two teams’ Week Two meeting, Karras boasted: “We’re a better team than the Packers are. We were better in both games last year, even if we only won one of them.” Only he said this from his living room, and watched the game — a 31-10 Packers win — on television; Karras was serving a one-year suspension for gambling. Without him, those Lions defenses could be very good, but with him they were dominant. Karras was arguably the best defensive lineman from an era when games were still very much determined in the trenches.
This week, when news of Karras’ passing at age 77 was shared, so much of the coverage was dominated by all the things Karras was off the field: the dad on "Webster," Tonight Show guest, "Paper Lion" character, professional wrestler for a brief time, "Monday Night Football" commentator, and, of course, the clueless brute Mongo from Mel Brooks’ "Blazing Saddles." This is how we’ve defined Karras now for close to half a century — as a personality first, and a dominant interior defensive lineman second — but that’s selling Karras short, at least for all of his talents on the football field.
Karras was 6-foot-2 and weighed a mere 250 pounds — a tad undersized for his time; the frame of an edge rusher today. But he understood the game as well as any of his peers. He studied film, and got to know the tendencies of the guards he regularly embarrassed.
He also played with poor eyesight. He chose not to wear glasses. During one game against Chicago, Karras felt guard Roger Davis was holding him and delivering a few too many elbows, so later in the game Karras got even, and knocked his opponent down before stepping on him. Only it wasn’t Brown, it was Karras’ brother, Ted, the Bears’ other guard. “The Bears flopped the guards," Alex told Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule. “I didn't know it was Ted until it was all over. He was pretty mad at me for a while.”
In 1964, Maule included Karras among his list of pro football’s best three defensive tackles, along with the Rams’ Merlin Olsen and Packers’ Henry Jordan. Karras got the cover; Olsen and Jordan later got yellow jackets from the Hall of Fame.
In 1965, Karras was named to his fourth Pro Bowl and third All-Pro roster. Prior to the start of a game the following season, Karras was asked by a referee to call the coin flip. “I can’t do that, sir,” he reportedly said. “I’m not allowed to gamble.”
He had arrived in Detroit in 1958, the year after Tobin Rote carried Detroit to its last NFL title. But in Karras’ first 11 years the Lions came up short. The 1970 team offered Karras his first trip to the postseason since he had helped the University of Iowa claim the 1957 Rose Bowl. The 10-4 Lions — owners of the league’s second-ranked defense — held Tom Landry’s Cowboys to just five points, but lost 5-0. That’s when Karras’ football career officially ended and his career in entertainment began.
Said Lions president Tom Lewand following Karras’ passing this week: “Perhaps no player in Lions history attained as much success and notoriety for what he did after his playing days as did Alex.”
Only Karras’ success as an actor — though noteworthy — was not uncommon. Olsen acted. Bubba Smith acted. Dick Butkus acted. Every former defender with a name seemed to find work on the big or small screen. Perhaps Karras deserves recognition for being the first to do so, but, again, he was one of many.
On the football field, Karras was one of few. I’m not sure Mongo could have blocked Alex Karras. Hold him, tackle him, or, perhaps appropriately, punch him, maybe. But few interior linemen of the 1950s and ’60s could block Karras. Let this be how we remember him first for the next half-century.
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mikebeacom.