My obituary of Alex Karras is up on the Guardian's website; you can link to it here, There was a lot I had to leave out, for the usual reasons of space and of the audience's assumed unfamiliarity with American football --a couple of very basic explanations were added in for fear they wouldn't understand. I had to leave out one of my favourite quotes--the story he made famous on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, about 'battling for 59 minutes and then some little guy in a clean uniform comes on and says 'I keek touchdown!'. Garo Yepremian had indeed said that to Karras, but it came after the extra point on a meaningless touchdown--and might well have been apocryphal anyway, as Yepremian had already been playing in the Continental Football League.
For people who do know football, Karras' career is fascinating. He appears to have been a four-year all-state selection, which I found hard to believe--Bobby Valentine first achieved fame in my home state of Connecticut by being the first-ever three-timer-- and Karras suffered badly at Iowa, from both home-sickness and an unwillingness to adapt to the hard-edged approach of the legendary Hawkeyes' coach Forest Evashevski. Legend says he threw a shoe at the coach when he quit the team in 1955, and it was true he missed playing against his brother when Evashevski benched him for the 1956 season opener against Indiana. That year Iowa went 9-1 (losing to Michigan) and ended the season with a huge win over Notre Dame, whose star, ironically, was 'The Golden Boy' Paul Hornung, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy as best college player, and would later be suspended for gambling along with Karras. Iowa won the Rose Bowl over Oregon State, and finished ranked third in the nation.
The next year, Karras won the Outland Trophy, but almost more impressively finished second in the Heisman voting to halfback John David Crow of Texas A&M. But it would have taken too much space to explain both the Heisman and the fact it nearly always goes to a quarterback or running back. That Karras isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is probably due to his gambling suspension--but Jerry Kramer is another lineman from the all-decade team in the Sixties who isn't in the Hall, and Kramer wrote books. In Instant Replay he paid Karras a supreme compliment as an opponent: 'I'm thinking about him every minute'. Speaking of books, it's also hard to understate the kind of impact that Paper Lion had.
George Plimpton was an elegant, upper-class, American aristocrat kind of
writer--editor of the Paris Review--and his endorsement of the NFL was
as crucial as the Kennedys' games of touch football for elevating the
game in the minds of mainstream America. You can see from reading the
book just how taken he was with Karras--and as the epitome of the 'old
style' game of football, he was essential to Plimpton's selling of what
became a very different kind of sport as it conquered America.
The Lions had a formidable defense, especially in the middle, with Karras, the quick guy who'd now be called an 'under' tackle and big Roger Brown, with the excellent Joe Schmidt behind them at middle linebacker. I saw a couple of references to their line being called 'The Fearsome Foursome' before the Rams' claimed that name--but I tend to doubt it extended beyond Detroit, if at all, because I recall the Chargers' early AFL line being called that, also before the Rams, and the Lions' ends weren't that fearsome anyway. Ironically, Brown would be traded to the Rams, and join the Foursome as a replacement. Perhaps not so ironically, Karras feuded with his pro coaches too, except for Schmidt when he became coach after he retired, but by 1970 he'd lost too much quickness and was cut before the 1971 season.
I thought the Rugby League comparison was an apt one, and I would have liked to compare Karras and Hornung's suspension to Joe Namath's a few years later--Namath similarly had to divest himself of a share in a bar where underworld characters hung out. There was a good piece in the New York Times about the Lindell AC, where among the items framed on the walls was a jockstrap worn by Karras' teammate Wayne Walker. In the era of modern 'sports bars' this kind of joint just doesn't exist anymore, as much an anachronism as the players of the era and the kind of game football was.
Karras and Dick the Bruiser really did tear the Lindell AC to pieces in their staged brawl to promote the match staged while Karras was suspended. He didn't wrestle all that often, but he played a wrestler at least twice in movies, once in Babe, as I mentioned in the obit, and with actual ring action in Mad Bull (1977) where he plays the eponymous aging wrestler coming to the ring wearing a Mongo-style cowboy hat. Obviously wrestling helped him play the comic roles he so often got.
I'll have to dig up a copy of Babe; the more I think about it, the more convinced I am the Babe Didrikson may have been the greatest American athlete of the first half of the 20th century, certainly up there with Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, and Jesse Owens. I'm also curious to see how Susan Clark, who is an underrated actress, played her. Of course she wound up repeating the film role and marrying Karras for real.
I can't remember Karras on Monday Night Football, but that was the time I was leaving Montreal and moving to London. I was also surprised to see he'd done CFL commentary, for a station in Windsor, just across the river from Detroit. I remembered he'd had a big offer from Winnipeg when he left college--the CFL could actually compete with the NFL for some players, and they may have thought the undersized Karras might do better on the bigger Canadian fields.
I was indebted to Robert Collins for the Karras quote I used at the end. It sums up the man, and life, perfectly. I'll repeat it here:
"It takes more courage to reveal insecurities than to hide them, more
strength to relate to people than to dominate them, more 'manhood' to
abide by thought-out principles rather than blind reflex. Toughness is
in the soul and spirit, not in muscles and an immature mind."
RIP, Alex Karras.