Alex Karras was a man of many roles.
Fearsome NFL defensive lineman. Lovable TV dad. Hilarious big-screen cowboy.
And in the end, a dementia victim who blamed the NFL for his illness along with thousands of former players in lawsuits accusing the league of not doing enough to protect them from the long-term effects of head injuries.
Karras, 77, died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home surrounded by family members, including his wife of 37 years, actress Susan Clark. He was suffering from cancer and kidney failure as well as dementia.
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the Lions’ practice facility in Allen Park, Mich. Team president Tom Lewand released a statement: “On behalf of the William Clay Ford Family and the entire Detroit Lions organization, we extend our deepest sympathies to Susan, the Karras family and to all of Alex’s friends and fans across the country. While his legacy reached far beyond the gridiron, we always will fondly remember Alex as one of our own and also as one of the best to ever wear the Honolulu blue and silver.”
Karras was one of the NFL’s most ferocious – and best – defensive tackles for the Detroit Lions from 1958-70, bulling past offensive lineman and hounding quarterbacks.
He went into acting after he retired in 1970 at age 35, and in his signature scene dropped a horse with a punch as the soft-hearted outlaw Mongo in the 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles.” He also portrayed the father in the 1980s sitcom “Webster,” along with Clark, and was on “Monday Night Football” telecasts (1974-76).
Born in Gary, Ind., Karras starred for four years at Iowa and was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Detroit drafted him with the 10th overall pick in 1958, and he was All-Pro in 1960, 1961 and 1965, and he made the Pro Bowl four times during his 12-year career in Detroit. He was recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a defensive tackle on the 1960s All-Decade Team.
Karras’ playing career was interrupted in 1963, when the NFL urged him to sell his financial interests in a Detroit bar rumored to be associated with gambling and organized crime. Karras first threatened to retire, then admitted to placing bets on NFL games. He was suspended for one season.
“Alex Karras was an outstanding player during a time when the NFL emerged as America’s favorite sport,” the league said in a statement. “He will always be remembered as one of the most colorful characters in NFL history.”