It is difficult to accurately capture the spirit of a man like Alex Karras had in words. After all, he was a brutal football player who pounded quarterbacks the way a boxer hits a body bag. He was gentle enough to play a sitcom dad following his NFL days. He possessed a great sense of humor and a strong enough actor to create the most memorable character in a film packed with laughs. And finally, he was talented enough to finish second in the Heisman voting in 1957, be a top-ten draft pick and live up to those expectations with four pro bowls. Let me take that back, it’s not difficult–it is impossible. Therefore, I will write about “The Mad Duck” in terms of his accomplishments and not try to dig into a man as multifaceted as Mr. Karras.
Alex Karras grew up in a football family in Gary, Indiana. Brothers Lou and Ted made NFL rosters. Ted, who played at Indiana, had made IU the top choice for Alex, but he would eventually sign with the Hawkeyes. Iowa was a powerhouse when Alex arrived at Iowa City in 1954. Karras was very homesick and nearly left after his freshman season but through friendships with teammates and fellow Greeks in Iowa City, he would return for his sophomore season.
Legendary coach Forest Evashevski was tough on all his players but was especially hard on Alex because of his incredible talent being stuck in a kid who was less than focused at that age. Karras showed up out of weight and struggled all year. He even quit the team at the end of the season. At a crossroads, Karras decided to refocus himself and came back in shape, ready to go in 1956.
1956 was a solid year for Iowa as the team went 8-1, won the Rose Bowl and ended No. 3 in the AP polls. Karras played an important role for Iowa’s defense and was awarded first team All-American for his stellar playing time. There was one game he took particular delight in, and it was Iowa’s 48-8 stomping of Notre Dame–a school the Karras family loathed.
1957 was another strong year for the program as it finished sixth in the nation and went 7-1-1. Karras again was a major factor in the top-10 finish. He won the Outland, was a consensus first team All-American and finish second in the Heisman race. He was only the second lineman to ever finish that high (1949 winner Leon Hart was the first and in 1973 John Hicks joined the exclusive club). Although Karras had left Iowa City before the 1958 national title, he is as much of a legend in Iowa City as any member of the 58 squad.
Karras was drafted by the Detroit Lions and played his entire career for the club, retiring in 1970. While having a remarkable NFL career, Karras’ unique personality led to more clashes with coaches and NFL personnel. In 1963, he was suspended by the league for the year, along with Packer legend Paul Hornung, for gambling on NFL games. Colorful as always, he spend the year off as a professional wrestler–and yes, it was as hokey back then as it is now.
Karras was not just a great individual for the Lions, but he anchored one of the NFL’s scariest defenses. In 1962, the Lions went 11-3 on the back of a unit that gave up 177 points (12.6 a game). Other seasons had similar success; however the majority of his career there was only the title game. His only playoff game ended up as his final professional game. The Lions didn’t yield a touchdown but still lost 5-0.
The groundwork for a successful second career was laid in 1968 when Karras played himself in a film adaptation of Paper Lion. Just a few years removed from playing, Karras would make his famous turn as Mongo in the iconic Blazing Saddles. From 1974 to 1976, Karras displayed his humor and knowledge of the game to ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcast, working alongside legends Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell. The team was together for three seasons but the acting bug was too strong.
After consistent work in the late ’70s, Karras turned in two of his biggest roles. The first was in the 1982 hit Victor Victoria and the second was as George Papadapolis in the sitcom Webster. The show ran for six years and had 150 episodes and was routinely a top 50-rated show throughout its run. By any standards, Webster was a tremendous hit.
His onscreen wife in Webster was played by his real wife, Susan Clark. The two were married in 1980 and stayed together until Karras’ death. Prior to his relationship with Clark, he was married for nearly 20 years. Between the two marriages, he raised six children. An example of his softer side was rarely seen when he suited up for Iowa and Detroit.
Alex Karras succeeded in every phase of his life, and he carried himself with class and that incredible sense of humor. Athletes are remembered well beyond their playing days for their accomplishments, and a select few are remembered after their passing. For actors, a memorable part will shape their legacy after retiring and some will forge a role so iconic that it will be remembered after they have taken that final bow. Karras is a rare species: an athlete whose accomplishments will be remembered well beyond his death and an actor who will continue to provide laughs well beyond his passing.
Mongo may have been a pawn in life, but Alex Karras was calling all the shots.
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