A League Outlaw With an Endearing Scowl

By Bill Morris
The New York Times
October 13, 2012

For me, Alex Karras will always be a pink giant with a towel wrapped around his waist. He will always have a scowl on his face, a cigar in one paw and a cold beer in the other.
That’s how I still see him half a century after I, as a wide-eyed kid, slipped into the Detroit Lions’ locker room after home games. Karras, who died Wednesday at the age of 77, was pink because he had just finished washing away the mud and the blood from a long day in the trenches. He was scowling through the cigar smoke because, more often than not, the Lions had just lost another game.
I got into the locker room because my father had season tickets in a little third-deck aerie beside the press box. Our seats were perched above the gridiron that had been painted on the field where the Tigers played baseball during the warm months and where the Lions played a bruising brand of football during the season of rain, sleet and snow. As cold as it was in those stands, I’ve got to believe the playing field was as forgiving as a sidewalk.
My father had those choice tickets because he worked at Ford’s, as Detroiters say. Specifically, he worked for the man who bought the Lions in 1963 and still owns the team, William Clay Ford Sr., whose grandfather gave the world the Model T and the $5 workday.
Karras, at 6 feet 2 inches and about 250 pounds, looked as big as a building to my boyhood eyes but was considered small for a defensive lineman even then. If you wanted big, you went with Roger Brown, his neighbor on the Lions’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line of the 1960s. Brown weighed more than 300 pounds, when 300-pound football players and 7-foot basketball players were anomalies and when domed stadiums, luxury suites and multimillionaire athletes did not exist.
But Karras, skinny legs and all, played with a murderous intensity that endeared him to me and many other fans in the bare-knuckle city of Detroit. He was known for hating all quarterbacks, even his own. He dismissed them as “milk drinkers.” One story has it that after Lions quarterback Milt Plum threw a late interception, turning a 7-6 lead into a 9-7 loss to the despised Green Bay Packers, an infuriated Karras hurled his helmet across the locker room at Plum’s skull. He missed the target by 10 inches, give or take.
As I was to learn later, Karras had another admirable characteristic: an abiding disdain for authority. He got along so poorly with his coach at the University of Iowa, Forest Evashevski, that the two wouldn’t speak to each other off the field. Even so, Karras was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1957 and a first-round draft pick by the Lions. He did not have many kind words for the team’s front office, and he was furious and unrepentant when, in 1963, N.F.L. Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended him and Packers running back Paul Hornung for gambling on games.
“I don’t like Pete Rozelle,” Karras said in a 1977 interview, recalling his one-year suspension for placing half a dozen bets of $50 or $100.
Hornung apologized, publicly and profusely. Karras never did. I always admired him for that, for his unwillingness to bow to authority, doubly so because it carried consequences. Hornung was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986. Despite four Pro Bowl appearances, despite being voted to the All-Decade Team of the 1960s, despite a consensus that he was one of the best defensive linemen ever to play the game, Karras was shunned by the Hall of Fame.
Karras played his entire career for Detroit, from 1958 to 1970, missing one game to injury. During his suspension, he took up pro wrestling, including a hyped bout against Dick the Bruiser. Karras told an interviewer in 2003 that he was paid $17,000 for that night, $4,000 more than he made the previous season playing for a team owned by a man who was then worth millions.
It may be fashionable nowadays to moan that athletes make outrageous money — and I moan as much as any fan — but we tend to forget that before professional athletes became organized and began to assert leverage, the team owners tended to treat players like serfs. After Joe DiMaggio made $17,000 during his second sensational season with the Yankees, he asked for $40,000 in 1938. He eventually caved in and accepted management’s offer of $25,000. For this he was booed in the Bronx.
Karras played in one playoff game in his career, his last game, a 5-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. I’ve got to believe all that losing ate up a competitor like Karras, the scowling pink giant with the cigar and the beer. But he didn’t turn into a bitter old jock. To his credit, he was successful in broadcasting and in acting. And he kept fighting the authorities to the end. He had dementia during the last decade of his life, and in April he joined the more than 3,000 former players who are suing the N.F.L. for failing to protect them from the long-term effects of head injuries.
In one of his most memorable movie roles, as the thick-skulled cowpoke Mongo in the 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles,” Karras said, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
Alex Karras was anything but a pawn, in the game of football or in the game of life.
Bill Morris, who grew up in Detroit, is the author of the novels “Motor City” and “All Souls’ Day.”