I never knew Alex Karras, both personally or in a football sense. Being that his acting career was nearly over by the time I was born, there wasn't much hope of me ever enjoying his game on the old gridiron, either. It's perhaps one of my saddest realities of time and place.
However, the past two summers, I did some reading about interesting Detroit Lions' teams and personalities of the past. I picked up George Plimpton's classic books Paper Lion and Mad Ducks and Bears, each of which have a heavy Lions theme. First, I read Paper Lion, and found Karras's effervescent character to literally jump off the page, horn rimmed glasses and all. I had heard of him and his legendary career, but I never understood just how funny he really was.
This was particularly obvious near the end of Paper Lion. After meeting Plimpton, Karras goes off on a lengthy diatribe about the unfairness of advertising endorsements. In it, he surmises, that all the beautiful people (like former Lions' quarterback Milt Plum, who had to be taught how to smoke) get the cigarette ads, while the slugs like himself that actually knew how to smoke got no credit. You were way ahead of your time, Alex.
It was this summer, when I read Mad Ducks and Bears, though, that I got to know the true color of Karras's character. In it, Plimpton talks at length about Karras passionately coaching his son's youth football team, and the comical misfortunes that often occurred. There's a hilarious chapter dedicated to Karras's how shall we say, unique pro-am golf tournament, where he attempted to bring golfers down to his level with a series of strange events. A mariachi player on a putting green? Cannons on a golf course? Live zoo animals roaming free? It could only be the Alex Karras Golf Classic in Flint, which was set up to benefit victims of Cystic Fibrosis.
Despite his bad guy image, Karras possessed a big heart. He was funny and fun loving. Why wasn't I born 40 years earlier? I wanted to cover this.
All of this made Wednesday morning's news that much tougher. Karras passed away due to kidney failure nearly 48 hours after it was said he was short on time. Presumably, he fought to the end, giving the disease as much resistance as an opposing offensive lineman. I can picture him taking it on now, talking to himself like he often did during the play in a gruff voice, determined to press on.
Hopefully, he had his trademark glasses off right until the bitter end. After all, when he did, he admitted he turned into somebody else. Somebody a little more scary and menacing. In football heaven, Johhny Unitas better be careful. Karras is coming home to stay. Those pickup games should be interesting. Think Vince Lombardi and George Halas are pleased to see an old rival return? Not in your life.
Karras will be missed in the hearts and minds of football fans in Detroit, but also with those who knew him as an actor, a television personality and an all around good, jovial guy. He'll even be missed by those who got to know him a little later in life through print, even though that seems much more shallow.
Oddly enough, near the end of Paper Lion, Karras colorfully discusses his mortality. He often maintained that prior to his life on earth, he lived many other different lives. Doing what, you ask? Something with the Civil War amongst other things, probably a camp follower. When his time was done on earth this time around, what would he then hope to become?
"How the hell do I know?" Karras snapped to teammate Gary Lowe when pressed. "I tell you, nothing can be worse than this, lying around in a hotel room like a bunch of cruds. Then, we get out on some field and knock some guys around for a lousy pile of pennies. What sort of life is that? It's crud." In the moment, Karras was merely getting fired up for a game. Mission accomplished.
Whatever and wherever you are now Alex, go ahead and enjoy it. You left one hell of a legacy doing all that wonderful crud.
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