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.
I did not know until I read the early obituaries that Alex Karras had suffered from dementia. He was one of the many former NFL players who have sued the league for not having taken the proper precautions to protect players from head injuries.
This is an extremely sensitive and important issue. Dementia is a tragic and heart-breaking affliction. We need to re-examine our values. Are we on the path to the grim sports future as depicted in the 1976 movie “Rollerball” where the craving for violent entertainment leads citizens to devalue the lives of athletes?
Are the players entirely innocent? After all, common sense tells us not to let our heads get knocked around. Karras and his contemporaries must have realized that playing a game based on repeated violent contact could inflict long-term physical damage.
How will the courts rule? Will judges ignore the ex post facto provision in the Constitution and punish the league for past behavior that was acceptable then, but may now be considered unacceptable? One would think that the courts could only find the league liable if owners knew the risks of long-term brain damage and withheld that medical knowledge from the players, but with today’s activist judges, you never know.
If the courts find the NFL liable for the long-term health consequences of playing pro football, the game will have to be fundamentally redesigned. What would we be left with—touch football? Would fans then pay so much to watch it? Must athletes put the health of their brains at risk as the price of earning millions—a diabolical temptation and tradeoff?
The sad passing of the multi-talented Alex Karras raises some profound and disturbing questions.
Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.