Alex Karras, at one time among the most feared defensive linemen in the NFL who later parlayed his fame into a successful acting career, has died at the age of 77. Karras had suffered from a variety of health problems in recent years and following a kidney failure last week had been described as ‘near death’.
Karras played his entire career with the Detroit Lions and was named a first team All Pro in 1960, 1961 and 1965. He made the Pro Bowl four names and was named on the NFL’s ‘All Decade’ team for the 1960′s. He missed the 1963 after being suspended along with Paul Hornung by then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for admitting to placing bets on NFL games. He was reinstated on the provision that he no longer gamble–at one point he was asked to call the pregame coin toss and told the official “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not permitted to gamble.”
Even before becoming an actor Karras had a flair for the dramatic and for taking an unconventional path. During his 1963 suspension he turned down offers to play in the Canadian Football League and instead became a professional wrestler. This wasn’t his first experience as a pro wrestler–he had competed in the ring for six months before signing his first NFL contract. His most famous opponent as a wrestler was Dick the Bruiser due more to the prematch buildup than anything else. Bruiser went to a bar owned by Karras the week before the match and the two men got into a wild bar. While it may have been a ‘work’, objective sources like wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer suggest it ‘got out of hand’.
Many younger fans knew little of Karras’s NFL career and instead remember him as a versatile actor. He’s perhaps best known for his performance as ‘Mongo’ in the Mel Brooks comedy ‘Blazing Saddles’. Later, he spent several years playing Emmanuel Lewis’ dad on the TV series ‘Webster’. He even made an ‘art imitates life’ turn playing a professional wrestler in the surprisingly entertaining made for TV film ‘Mad Bull’.
Karras’ quality of life had declined precipitously in recent years due to a variety of ailments, not the least of which was dementia that his wife suggests was brought on by head injuries during his NFL career. Karras is party to the suit filed by a group of NFL players filed against the league over their handling of head injuries.