Alex Karras- More than Muscles and Football

By George Khoury

“Toughness is in the soul and spirit and not the muscles” – Alex Karras. He was affectionately known as the “Mad Duck.” Some of us laughed at him in Mel Brooks’ 1974 film, “Blazing Saddles” as Mongo, when he rode into town on a Brahmin bull and quickly punched a horse in the face.

He portrayed Mongo, the muscle bound thug as philosopher. He reduced his role to the simplest of terms when he looked at the camera as said, “Mongo only pawn in great game of life.”

His humor and acute sarcasm earned him a spot on the early years of Monday Night Football. He made news when he announced that an Oakland Raider lineman was from the “University of Mars.”

It seems that Alex Karras also always made news. Alex was an All-State lineman while in high school and went to Iowa. Here he conflicts with the head coach. The coach benched him. Alex walked off the team. This seemed to be a regular dance between the two of them. His performance when he did play was electric. In 1956 he was on the 1st Team All American. By the next year, he was the most dominant defensive lineman in the league. At the end of the year Alex was second in voting for the Heisman Trophy. That was almost unheard off for a lineman. In 1958 he was a first round pick for the Detroit Lions and anchored one of the most devastating defenses in NFL history. His fiery tenure with the Lions lasted from 1958 to 1962 and then from 1964 until 1970. He was an All-Pro selection from 1967 until 1969.

He, along with the Packer’s Paul Horning was suspended in 1963 for gambling. Although he owned a bar at the time, he admitted to placing bets. Once again his name was in the headlines. Always at war with his coaches, Karras was always his own man and never compromised. His ego and personality grew.

He was a major subject of George Plimpton’s book, The Paper Lion and also figured prominently in the film adaptation playing himself. A few years later, as the casting to The Godfather was under way, he was considered for the role of Carlo, the double-crossing brother-in-law who was to take a street beating from James Caan. His witty remarks as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson enhanced his image and drew attention that here was a unique personality and story-teller. Alex became one of the earliest pro athletes to expand their images and reveal other dimensions of their personality.

When his playing days were over he took to acting. He had a role in “Porky,” “Victor Victoria,” and as the hulking thug in “Against All Odds.” The role of Mongo was classic and still enjoyed today. Who could ever forget him guesting on The Odd Couple and pinching Tony Randall’s face like a chunk of Silly Putty when he suspected Tony of seeing his wife.

He played good hearted strongman in an episode of M.A.S.H. He acted in a few films in serious roles. His big break came when with his wife, Susan Clark, they produced and starred in a show called “Webster.” The show ran from 1983 until 1981.

Toward the end of his life he joined in a suit against the league about better head gear and protection against concussion. His end came as he suffered from dementia, heart disease and cancer.

On October 10, 2012, this laughing giant lost his battle-kidney failure killed Alex Karras.

“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 thoughtful principles than blind reflex.” – Alex Karras

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