Alex Karras, the former Detroit Lions All-Pro defensive tackle and later a successful actor, died on October 10. I have vivid memories of him before he ever gained immortality as “Mongo” in “Blazing Saddles” or as the stepdad of “Webster.”
Karras was a star on the great Detroit Lions defenses of the early 1960s—a unit that included four Hall-of-Famers: middle linebacker Joe Schmidt and defensive backs Night Train Lane, Dick LeBeau, and Yale Lary, all three of whom were in the top five for career interceptions at the time they retired. This defense led the way to one of the greatest moments in Detroit sports history—“The Thanksgiving Day Massacre” of 1962.
The Packers’ record was 10-0 when they came to Detroit for the annual Thanksgiving Day game 50 seasons ago. Featuring 10 future Hall of Fame players and the incomparable Vince Lombardi as coach, the mighty Packers had crushed all their opponents—except for the Lions, whom they had squeaked past, 9-7, in their first matchup in Green Bay.
Counting the championship game, the Packers finished that 1962 season 14-1. The “1” was the Thanksgiving Day game. Karras and his “fearsome foursome” linemates—ends Darris McCord and Sam Williams, and 300-pound tackle Roger Brown (50 years ago, you could count the NFL’s 300-pounders on your fingers)—blew up Green Bay’s Pro Bowl-caliber offensive line and sacked quarterback Bart Starr nine times in the first half. By the end of the third quarter, the Lions led 26-0 and coasted to victory. Lombardi paid tribute after the game, saying, “My club wasn’t flat. We were ready. They [the Lions defense] just overwhelmed us.”
Karras left other football memories. He was suspended for the 1963 season for having gambled on NFL games. This cost him a season in his prime and possibly a berth in the Hall of Fame. Upon his return, Karras—a team captain—showed that he had wit and a sense of humor. He told the ref who asked him to call “Heads” or “Tails” at the pregame coin toss that he wasn’t allowed to gamble.
In an incident indicative of how the game was played then, Karras jabbed several punches into the face of an opposing player at the bottom of a pileup at the end of a play. Severely near-sighted and playing without glasses in those days before contact lenses, Karras asked one of his teammates in the ensuing huddle, “Who was that slob?” Answer: His older brother, Ted Karras, a guard for the Bears.