"I'm thinking about him every minute," an NFL lineman once said about blocking Alex Karras. That's from an AP brief that broke the news of Alex Karras' death this week. He was 77 years old, and that quote's a good reminder: If this were just about a football player, there would be plenty of room to get nostalgic.
He began at Iowa, where he was an All-American as two-way lineman. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman his senior, and finished as the runner-up in Heisman voting. (That was as incredible then as it would be now.) His star only soared higher in the pros, where he was named an All-Pro three times, anchored the Lions' defensive line, and eventually got himself voted onto the 1960s All-Decade Team. He was undersized, and still exactly the sort of ass-kicker who gives future generations chills when they think about football's past.
But then ... the football player seems a little bit beside the point here. There are legendary players and then there are legendary people, and Karras personifies the latter.
He may have been one of the greatest college football players of all time, but he hated his college coach--legend has it that he once quit by throwing a shoe in his coach's face after a big win, and only agreed to return when the coach promised never to speak to him outside of coaching--and he hated college, in general. "I hated going to school, he told the Des Moines Register in 1997. "I liked some of the people at the University of Iowa, but I didn't go to class very often. I guess I'm about 25 years away from getting my degree. Not 25 semester hours -- 25 years. I don't regret not having a degree. I think it's silly to push people to go to college."
The Rose Bowl he won for Iowa in 1957 was bittersweet. "I didn't like the 1957 Rose Bowl game we won from Oregon State. Oh, I played all right in it, but we didn't have any fun. I had eight tickets and planned to sell them so I could buy a suit. Don Dobrino (a teammate) supposedly had a guy who was going to buy all our tickets. Don gave 'em to somebody in a bowling alley, but he turned out to be a thief and we lost everything."
When he left Iowa, he decided to supplement his income by trying his hand at Pro Wrestling. "Pinkie George of Des Moines signed me to my contract," he said of his wrestling career. You can see a promo poster here, and an action shot of "Killer Karras" over here.
Then even as he dominated in the NFL as an undersized lineman, he couldn't help being himself. He admitted to gambling on his own games, and was promptly suspended for an entire year by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle. He spent his year off tending bar in Detroit and making more money than he ever had in football. When he returned to the league a year later, Sports Illustrated remembers that he refused to call the coin flip. "I'm sorry, sir," he told the ref. "I'm not permitted to gamble."
Please note that all of this happened before he left football to star in movies, married a movie star, graduated from roles as horse-punching "Mongo" in Blazing Saddles to the lovable dad in Webster, and later in life, retired in Southern California and watched his daughter graduate school. Pretty much any snapshot from his life makes you smile.
This is how he met his movie star wife (via Sports Illustrated):
On the pretense of scouting her golf game before production began—"I didn't want either of us to be embarrassed during shooting," he says—Karras followed her onto a course, staying out of sight behind bushes. In his telling it sounds a bit more like stalking than it does scouting: "She hits a drive right at me." Being deliberately flushed from a hiding place would have been an awkward enough moment for most men. But Karras compounded it by saying, "I love you." Before Clark could properly assess the situation, Karras thoughtfully added, "And I think you have a great body."
It just doesn't get much more awesome than that.
In the past few years his health hit a steep decline, and as he descended into dementia, he and his wife added their names to a lawsuit against the NFL attacking the league for head injury negligence. It'll be mentioned in every story you read about his death this week. But Karras' story has a twist on the "punched out" narrative that engulfs so many NFL legends these days.
Most football players live for the game for the first 40 years of their life, give everything they have, and many finish their lives broke and (allegedly) demented. It's awful. But Alex Karras never lived for football, and his future only got brighter when he left the game behind. He's the rare case of the guy who used a game that uses its players as a rule. Karras' dementia may prove the football rule, but his life during and after his career stands as one, giant exception. Tragic doesn't feel like the right word here.
No, instead of mourning Karras or wringing our hands over football, take a minute to read through the various obituaries this week, and let's all gawk together at the psychedelic journey from Indiana to Iowa to Detroit to Hollywood. He could be remembered as the Dad from Webster, as Mongo from Blazing Saddles, as the Monday Night Football announcer who openly mocked Frank Gifford, the Detroit Lions legend, one of the best college football players of all time, or maybe just the guy whose death finally put his outrageous life in proper perspective for millions of stupid young people like me.
However Alex Karras left his impression, chances are nobody will ever remember his name without smiling at just how incredible life can be sometimes. It's as perfect a legacy as anyone could ever imagine.