Alex Karras acted big, talked big and played big on the football field.
Even when Karras ran afoul of the NFL’s rules, he did it in a big way.
Stories abound of Karras’ giant-sized personality and the mammoth footprints he left behind as an All-Pro tackle for the Lions.
Karras, who died Wednesday morning while in hospice care in California, was one of the Lions’ all-time greats. He was 77 and had been suffering from kidney failure and dementia.
It is a fitting tribute to Karras that Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Lions and a teammate of Karras, laughed as he talked the day before Karras died about their relationship.
“Every time I think about Alex, I have to smile,” Sanders said Tuesday as he spoke with the media.
“Everybody who had the opportunity to watch him in show business should know there was nothing phony about him.
“He was a great man. Just a great man. I have nothing but the best memories.”
Karras is part of a class-action suit filed against the NFL by former players who claim the league misled them about the effects of head injuries.
The league is fighting the suit and says it did not intentionally mislead players.
Despite the news that broke about his grave condition and, ultimately, his death, the lighter side of Karras’ multiple careers as player, actor and celebrity-personality portray a man who was a character unto himself.
He had his hand in professional wrestling before and during his football career, and moved into sports broacasting and acting after it ended.
Karras did everything with a sense of humor and a style that made Sanders refer to him as “a Gofather.”
Karras smoked big cigars – even in the shower after practice or a game – and held court with media and teammates.
He had poor vision and wore heavy lenses with thick frames. Karras played without the glasses and said his vision was so poor that he tackled anything he saw coming his way.
“The legend was, he didn’t know what he was tackling,” Sanders said. “He could see.”
Karras could see, indeed, and was one of the dominant defensive linemen of his era.
Karras, who came to the Lions as a first-round draft pick out of Iowa in 1958, spent his entire pro career in Detroit. He played 12 seasons over a 13-year span, from ’58-70. He missed only one game because of injury, in 1970, his last as a Lion.
He was suspended for the 1963 season by late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling. Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung also was suspended for the 1964 season for gambling.
During his suspension, Karras worked as a part-time bartender at the old Lindell Bar, forerunner to the Lindell AC, a famed sports bar in downtown Detroit.
Karras was close friends with Jimmy and John Butsocaris, brothers who co-owned the Lindell.
In 1980, Karras played the lead role of Jimmy Butsicaris in the TV movie “Jimmy B & Andre.” It told the story of how Butsicaris befriended a homeless young man named Andre Reynolds. Andre and the Butsicaris brothers have both passed away.
Many of the movie’s scenes were shot at the Lindell.
On the field, Karras was part of the most storied defensive line in Lions’ history. Along with Sam Williams, Darris McCord and Roger Brown, the line was given the nickname “Fearsome Foursome” by the late Lions play-by-play announcer Van Patrick.
The Los Angeles Rams assumed the nickname when Brown was traded to the Rams in 1967. Brown has been quoted as saying the Lions were known as the Fearsome Foursome before the trade.
At 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds, Karras was not a big man, even by the standards of his era.
But he had amazing quickness and agility that allowed him to outmaneuver blockers, and he had the strength to hold his own in the trenches.
Karras was All-Pro three times and made four Pro Bowls as a Lion. His career ended when he was released in training camp in 1971.
Quarterback sacks were not kept as an official statistic by the NFL until 1982, but Karras was known for his ability to rush the passer as well as stop the run.
He was credited with 16 career fumble recoveries, including a career-high four in 1966. He also had four career interceptions.
Karras was named one of the defensive tackles on the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1960s.
Karras was never a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, either as a modern-era candidate or by the veterans committee.
However, Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Colts and Dolphins and former defensive coordinator of the Lions, once was asked if there was any player he thought should be in the Hall who wasn’t a member.
Without prompting, Shula mentioned Karras.
Karras won many honors in college. He was a two-time All-American at Iowa. As a senior in 1957, he won the Outland Trophy, given to the best linemen in college football.
Karras was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
Karras gained notoriety away from the gridiron.
He was a pro wrestler before signing with the Lions in 1958 and dabbled in it during and after his pro career. He had memorable bouts with Dick the Bruiser, a famous villain and former NFL player.
Karras was a natural to turn to acting after his playing career. His personality and glib nature earned him a spot in the Monday Night Football with Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell.
Karras was a mid-season replacement for Fred Williamson in 1074.
In his first game, Karras joked that Raiders lineman Otis Sistrunk, who never went to college and sported a shaved head, attended “the University of Mars.”
Early in his Monday Night Football stint, Karras brashly asked Cosell if he would get “one of those yellow jackets,” which were worn by regulars on the broadcast crew.
Karras got his jacket, and he remained on MNF through the 1976 season.
Karras did well as an actor on television and in movies. One of his best roles was as “Mongo” in the iconic 1974 western comedy “Blazing Saddles.”
In the movie, Mongo punched a horse and knocked it over.
Karras was involved in many other projects, including a starring role in the TV series Webster with his wife, actress Susan Clark.
Sanders recalled how he won Karras over in 1968 as a rookie.
Karras showed him a picture of what he said was him and his wife. Both were young, and Sanders said the woman was one of the ugliest he’d ever seen.
It wasn’t Karras’ wife, and he was testing Sanders to see how he’d react.
“You have a nice family,” Sanders replied diplomatically.
From that moment on, Karras accepted Sanders as a teammate and friend.
Sanders laughed again at the memory of Karras standing in the shower with a cigar in his mouth.
“He was a character,” Sanders said. “He was the Godfather. That’s what Godfathers do.”