Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras died Oct. 10, 2012, at 77 years old. Photo taken in 1971. | AP file photo
Updated: November 12, 2012 11:49AM
Alex Karras, the most accomplished defensive lineman to ever come from Gary, died Wednesday morning at his home in Hollywood Hills, Calif. He was 77. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and stomach cancer.
Karras played for the Detroit Lions, the University of Iowa and Gary Emerson High School, graduating from Emerson in 1954. He was a four-time all-state selection for the Golden Tornadoes.
Karras was a gifted, natural athlete from a football family. His older brothers, Lou and Ted, played for the Redskins and Bears, respectively, and his younger brother, Paul, followed him to Iowa. Ted was an offensive linemen on the Bears’ 1963 championship team.
According to Don Toma, a teammate of Karras’ at Emerson, he led the Northwestern Conference in scoring one year, playing tight end on offense. He also excelled at throwing the shot put and was a ferocious rebounder in basketball.
His brother, Paul, who played alongside Alex at Emerson, said Alex had phenomenal speed and quickness for a lineman. His playing weight of 248 pounds — he was 6-foot-2 — was slightly above what linemen in that era averaged. He weighed 225 at Iowa.
“He was so mobile for a big man,” Paul said. “He could smack a guy on the shoulder and do a 180-degree turn and get to the quarterback. That was his forte — rushing the quarterback. He loved to sack the quarterback.”
Karras led Iowa to the Big Ten title in 1956. The Hawkeyes beat Ohio State 6-0 to clinch first place with Karras ending the game with a sack on the final play.
Karras was named the Outland Trophy winner in 1957. He finished second that year in the Heisman Trophy balloting. In 1958, he was selected in the first round of the NFL draft (10th overall) by the Lions. He played on a line that featured Roger Brown, a six-time All-Pro. Karras was named to the Pro Bowl four times (1960-62, 1965) and he was selected by the NFL to be on the All-Decade team of the 1960s. He holds the record for most fumble recoveries for the Lions with 17.
In 1963, Karras was suspended for one season, along with Paul Hornung, for betting on NFL games. Paul Karras believes that episode kept him out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, partially because Alex would never publicly apologize for what he did.
“He loved to gamble,” Paul said. “That was part of the Greek in him. He always bet on his own team. He never would retract that. He probably should’ve showed some humility but he didn’t. I think anything he did after that was wrong. I’m sure that kept him out of the Hall of Fame.”
Karras’ journey to Iowa to play football was a murky affair.
He was set to attend Indiana, from where his older brother Ted had graduated, when an Iowa booster intercepted him and took him on a two-week vacation, where he fished, took trips in a private plane and was wined and dined in seclusion.
According to Paul Karras, Iowa coach Forest Evashesvki had ordered E.J. Jones, the booster to “do whatever it takes” to get Alex to Iowa.
Art Angotti, who owned a bakery in Gary and who was charged with getting Alex to Indiana, was mortified when Alex went missing.
“He kept calling the house every two hours asking where he was,” Paul recalled. “The truth is, no one knew where he was.”
Karras finally called and told his family he was OK. When he returned home, he announced he was attending Iowa. A year later, he told Paul, who was considering IU, that he was going to Iowa — and that’s where he went. In his book, written in 1977, called “Even Big Guys Cry”, Karras maintained, somewhat seriously, that he had to take a pay cut when he was drafted by the Lions.
Tony Karras, his nephew who lived in Southern California for five years in the 1990s and who collected many stories about his uncle, said he was given $8,000 to go there.
Paul Karras said he believes he got paid, though he’s not sure how much.
“I never could shake him down on that,” he said. “I thought maybe I could get a piece of the action.”
Karras earned recognition in football but his fame was launched when he segued into acting after his NFL career. He first got noticed when he played himself in the movie “Paper Lion,” an adaptation of George Plimpton’s book. Plimpton wrote the book after trying out for the team as a quarterback in 1963 during training camp as a ruse. Karras dove head-first into acting in 1971 after he was released from the Lions, moving out to Los Angeles to pursue a career.
He had roles in the “500 Pound Jerk” (1973) and “Blazing Saddles” (1974) before one of his big breaks came when he was selected for “Monday Night Football.” Karras spent three years (1974-1976) alongside Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford.
Paul said that Cosell secured the job for him.
“Howard took a chance on him,” he said. “He liked him.”
Karras’ big television break came when he and his second wife, Susan Clark, pitched a sitcom which would eventually be called “Webster.” Karras played the role of a benevolent, wise, good-natured father, who, along with Clark, his wife on the series, adopted Webster Long, a 7-year old black orphan. The show ran for five seasons, from 1983 to 1987, before it was picked up for syndication. According to Tony Karras, both Alex and Clark wanted out after four years but ABC executives called them into their offices and asked what it would take for them to stay one more season. Alex asked for $2 million. The executive returned with checks for $2 million each for both Karras and Clark and they finished one more year.
Karras was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several years ago, Clark said earlier this year. Both he and Ted, who was diagnosed in 2005, were part of a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The suit contends that the league did little to prevent the head injuries that are now correlated with Alzheimer’s and other brain conditions.
His nephew, Tony, spent weekends with Alex at his beach house in Malibu in the early 1990s, where he’d host lavish barbecues for his family and friends while the waves from the Pacific Ocean crashed into the beach. Football was hardly ever part of the conversation then.
“It was always about inspiring us,” Tony said. “It was about trying to make it and how we would make it.”
Karras is survived by his second wife, Susan Clark, and his six children — Alex, Pete, Carolyn, George Plimpton Karras, Renald and Katie.