Alex Karras was a fiery, QB-hating NFLer

Karras

Alex Karras, in 2003 at a Detroit Lions game. (Reuters)

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Most people probably will remember Alex Karras as an actor.

For memorable roles, both comedic and dramatic, such as the dad in the ’80s TV series Webster.

Or the cowboy lug who punched out the horse in Mel Brooks’ classic big-screen comedy Blazing Saddles.

But before becoming an acting star, Karras – who died of complications from kidney failure at age 77 – was one of the NFL’s best, and meanest, defensive tackles in the 1960s, with the Detroit Lions.

His competitive fire was legend.

121010_Alex_Karras_2One incident best encapsulates it. I’d heard it retold in various forms while growing up across the river from Detroit, in Windsor, Ont.

It involved a late-game loss by the Lions in 1962 to Vince Lombardi’s highest-scoring and, arguably, best Green Bay Packers team.

Upon learning of Karras’ death, I tried to track down a surviving teammate to see if the story was true.

It is.

Carl Brettschneider, a linebacker and good friend of Karras’ on the Lions from 1960-63, is now 78, living  in Las Vegas.

“Alex was so competitive,” Brettschneider told me over the phone

“What happened was we were leading in Green Bay, 7-6, and there was maybe a minute left. And it was pouring down rain the whole game. We’d held that undefeated Packers team to just two field goals, in all that mud.

“So, our coaches decided to throw a pass from our own 20-yard line, instead of setting up to punt the ball, because we had a great defence then. Milt Plum, our quarterback, threw a pass to Terry Barr, and Barr fell down – because it was so muddy – just as the ball got there. The ball went right into Herb Adderley’s hands (the Packers DB and future Hall of Famer).

“They kicked a field goal and that was it. We lost 9-7.”

That Lions defence indeed was, along with Green Bay’s, far and away the best in the NFL in 1962. Detroit surrendered only 12.6 points and 88 rushing yards per game.

The Lions had badly wanted to win that game in Green Bay, played 50 years and three days ago.

It was a ruinous loss. To be so close to defeating Lombardi’s dream team featuring glamour-boy quarterback Bart Starr and running back Jim Taylor – only to lose on a terrible gaffe. Some Lions defenders suspected Plum called the pass himself.

Cue the Karras legend …

“We all went into the locker room, and everybody (on defence) was really mad,” Brettschneider said. “Especially Alex. He was on one side of the dressing room, and Milt Plum was on the other. Alex took off his helmet and threw it at Milt. Right across the room.”

Other versions of the story contend that Karras had to be forcibly restrained by his defensive teammates from tearing Plum’s head off, he was so livid. Brettschneider said he doesn’t remember that.

Karras later proudly told Detroit News columnist Jerry Green that he missed Plum by only  inches with the helmet hurl.

Karras hated all “milk drinking” quarterbacks, even Detroit’s. He once said, “To me, football is a contest of embarrassments. The quarterback is out there to embarrass me in front of my friends, my teammates, my coaches, my wife, and my three boys. The quarterback doesn’t leave me any choice. I’ve got to embarrass him instead.”

The Packers went on to win the NFL championship in ’62. They finished 14-1, just short of achieving the first perfect season in NFL history, 10 years before the ’72 Miami Dolphins.

The one loss? To the Lions, who avenged their rain-soaked gutting by smoking the Packers 26-14 in the return game at Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Plum presumably had a good game, no doubt playing for his life.

Exactly, Karras.

“Alex got fired up for every game, and he stayed fired up,” Brettschneider said.

Karras had hated playing both ways at the University of Iowa, because all he wanted to do was crush quarterbacks. That he did with regularity in the NFL from 1958-70, only in Detroit.

Off the field, another Karras legend was growing. Nicknamed “The Mad Duck” he was a joker in the locker room, and a natural in front of the camera.

Brettschneider wasn’t surprised that Karras went on to become a star actor.

“Every year we had a rookie (initiation) show,” Brettschneider recalled, chuckling. “Alex once got dressed up like a German Nazi, and he brought this dog, a collie or something – I don’t know where he got it. He ran the show, and he had this whip, and was cracking it. It was hilarious.”

Karras as much successfully auditioned for a post-NFL acting career by cutting up Johnny Carson regularly on his Tonight Show.

For the next two decades, he acted. He also had a three-year stint as commentator on Monday Night Football.

Over the past five years or so, Karras had been struggling with Alzheimer’s. Yet he still called old friend Brettschneider on the phone, “probably 364 days a year.”

Another Lions teammate, Hall of Fame defensive back Yale Lary, on Wednesday told me that Karras was so funny “he was a comic, really,” but more than that “a really nice guy.”

Milt Plum, and every other NFL quarterback in the ’60s, might not have agreed.

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Lions teammate says Karras never was a bettor:

Alex Karras was infamously suspended for the entire 1963 season for gambling on pro football.

Detroit Lions teammate Carl Brettschneider, who with his wife Louise often socialized with Karras and first wife Joanie, says it was a misunderstanding.

“The dumb thing he did was he went on the Huntley/Brinkley (TV news) show,” Brettschneider said in a telephone interview on Wednesday, after hearing of Karras’ death. “And he went on there and bragged about how he gambled all this money – thousands of dollars. He didn’t realize that somebody would hear that. Like the commissioner.

“Alex never bet more than $5 in his life. I knew him that well.”

Maybe that’s why Karras never apologized, as fellow suspended player/gambler Paul Hornung of Green Bay did.

“Most of us feel like (Karras) should be in the Hall of Fame. He was that good. But of course the gambling thing (prevents it).”

 

 

2 thoughts on “Alex Karras was a fiery, QB-hating NFLer

  1. gregHicks

    You should have emntioned the fight outside the Lindel A C and the match with the Bruiser at the Olympia.

  2. Rob Sinclair

    Living in Windsor [across the river from Detroit] we were all Lions fans as kids. Karras was one of our heroes – tough, talented and out-spoken … and we admired him for his tenacity in every game. He was how you should be as a sportman we thought … proud of his team; willing to do whatever it took to try to win; and never self-centered … like too many of today’s NFL [or CFL for that matter] players. We respected Alex Karras … and while he may not have been perfect … he displayed total dedication in his professional career. Hall of Fame material … yes. I would have loved to see the backfield matchup of Alex Karras chasing my other football hero – Ron Lancaster – all over the place; that would have been some contest.

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