It was one of the most painful countdowns in Lions history. As soon as doctors gave former Detroit Lions legend Alex Karras mere days to live, Lions fans and friends flocked to pay their final respects to one of their childhood idols and friend. Today, surrounded by his wife, his kids and his closest friends, Alex Karras died of kidney failure at the age of 77.
He made his name in Detroit playing 12 hard years for the Lions in which he racked up 4 Pro Bowl selections and was named to the 1960′s All-Decade team.
“Perhaps no player in Lions history attained as much success and notoriety for what he did after his playing days as did Alex,” Lions president Tom Lewand said.
Karras was a showman in every aspect. He became a professional wrestler in 1958 just days before he signed a contract with the Lions and he’d eventually go back to wrestling in the early 60′s when he was suspended by the NFL for betting on football. Upon returning to the game he famously refused to call heads or tails on a coin toss stating to the official that he was not allowed to gamble on football anymore.
Those who don’t remember the giant for his days of bashing bodies, like remember him as a film actor, with now legendary roles in Blazing Saddles and the TV Show Webster in which he played the adoptive father of the titular character. His role in Blazing Saddles as Mongo, the slow-witted henchman who knocks out a horse and utters the classic line, “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
He also had roles on Match Game ’75, M*A*S*H, The Odd Couple and was under consideration for the role of Carlo Rizzi, the doomed husband of Micheal Corleone’s sister in The Godfather.
Karras was also a family man, but he saw that taken away from him in his retirement when he began to suffer from various health problems now attributed to his playing days in the NFL. He suffered from dementia, heart disease and eventually cancer in his later years and has become one of the poster cases for the ex-players and their lawsuits against the NFL for neglect.
“It’s the same thing as back in the gladiator days when the gladiators fought to death,” said Craig Mitnick, who represents Karras and hundreds of others in the suit, has said. “Fans care about these guys when they’re playing and they are heroes. But as soon as you’re not a hero and not playing, the fan doesn’t really care what happens to them.”
But that’s not how Karras will be remembered. If anything, Karras being the face of a massively public lawsuit is fitting for the type of guy he was. Before athletes were in commercials, movies and TV shows, there was Alex Karras paving the way. He was the very definition of a gentle giant and now that he’s gone the world, not just football and the city of Detroit, has lost someone special.