It's not uncommon for former NFL stars to flounder after their playing days are over. Alex Karras, however, found an unlikely second career as a Hollywood actor and thrived. I (Doc) saw Karras play defensive line many times, when my dad would take me to Tiger Stadium to watch the Lions, who played in the now razed baseball stadium. I can't say I saw how Karras was playing on those cold afternoons, sitting in the end zone. I mainly remember the fights that broke out around us. The crowd was rough and so were Karras and his cohorts on the field. And Karras was a beast of a man, big and sloppy and tough. It's easy to see how a good-looking former football player like Joe Namath or O.J. Simpson could evolve into actors, but Karras was an average-looking fatty, making his transition to acting even more absurd.
Karras died today at the age of 77 in Southern California, his adopted post-football home. He grew up in Gary, Indiana and played college ball at Iowa. Recent stories revealed Karras was on his death bed, fighting cancer and dementia.
Karras' move to acting was serendipitous. He was playing for the Detroit Lions - not a Hall of Famer, but made four Pro Bowls - in 1963 when participatory writer George Plimpton arrived at the Lions summer training camp to play some quarterback for a future book, "Paper Lion." Karras was a character and was prominently featured in the book, which came out in 1966. Two years later, Plimpton turned the book into a movie and Karras played the perfect role - himself.
After his playing days ended in 1970, he transitioned smoothly into acting. His most famous roles were in "Blazing Saddles," as "Mongo," and as Emmanuel Lewis' adoptive dad in the TV show, "Webster." His real-life wife, Susan Clark, played his wife in that show. Quite a legacy for a chubby guy out of Gary.