SI Vault
George Plimpton
October 12, 1970
Mr. T., children, is Alex Karras. He weighs 245 pounds. He runs like a mad duck. His friends are 39 Lions. Hear them roar
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October 12, 1970

Meet Mr. Twinkletoes And His Friends

Mr. T., children, is Alex Karras. He weighs 245 pounds. He runs like a mad duck. His friends are 39 Lions. Hear them roar

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And what of Alex Karras, the old rogue, the great Lion in the final years of his extraordinary and tumultuous career? This year he turned up at training camp a surprisingly changed figure. True, there were the usual preseason rumbles and observations, many of which found their way into the press. Karras is a man who speaks his mind and is frequently occupied with out-of-the-way matters: he ran a golf tournament to benefit cystic fibrosis in Flint, Mich. last June, during which a cannon was shot off from time to time behind the first tee to keep, as he put it, "the golfers on their toes"; there were his usual salary complaints; a few digs at Commissioner Pete Rozelle, a favorite target; a threat or so to give up football and retire to Iowa; an appearance in a weird TV commercial in which he picked up a small sports car and held it upside down to drain its gas tank into a bucket; and his admission on The Tonight Show of his boyhood terror of playing against older kids who had "hairy bodies."

But once the players' strike was over and the season under way, a relative quiet enveloped him, which bewildered even his teammates. Some felt his injury was bothering him. Others reckoned management had prevailed on him to contain his high jinks. Others detected a mellowing process. He is, after all, a recent electee to his neighborhood PTA and the coach of a Pony League football team, the Jets. When one of his youthful charges said, "Mr. Karras, I can't come to practice tomorrow. I have a French horn lesson," he managed to resist the temptation to speak ill of French horns and what he'd like to do with their 15-odd feet of tubing.

Karras himself senses a change. Being older, he has less in common with a team whose average age is 26. His injury, though improving daily, bothers him and he speaks of retreating a bit because of it—"like a wounded dog"; he is outraged by the mockery of not being 100% right when his team is a strong contender. That's the chief reason for his transformation: that he has looked around and found himself on a team that could go all the way.

"In the 12 years I've played for Detroit," he says, "I've never felt this way before. In past years we've always said, 'Oh, if we only had an offensive line or a placekicker or a quarterback or a punter.' We've always had an excuse. Now we don't have one. The coaches have put it together and they've presented it to us. They say, 'Well, here you are.' What can you say? The gun is loaded. No more blanks. The live stuff's in there. Now it's our responsibility.

"I felt all this after the Kansas City exhibition game. We lost that game, but then we'd only had about four days of practice, and I looked around and I saw that the coaches had given us this very, very good machine. After the game I telephoned a friend of mine who thought I was going to explode on somebody, which you usually do when you lose. He couldn't believe it, knowing me, when I told him in this quiet voice that we were going a long way, that maybe we had a championship team. He kept saying, 'Hey, Alex, is that you? You been hit on the head? You all right?' "

The other day Dick LeBeau, the veteran cornerback, was sitting in the gloom of a suburban Detroit nightclub called Basin Street and feeling very all right. The waitresses were pretty, with piled-up hair, and they doubled as go-go dancers. They wore long red jumpers with big zippers in front, which they pulled when the time came. Then they would set their trays down and gyrate slowly on a little stage. LeBeau is a man of lively imagination and he was convinced that he had spotted Justice William O. Douglas sitting at a ringside table.

"Hey, Judge!" he kept calling out.

Finally the man turned to order a drink and LeBeau hollered: "You asking for a change of venue?"

"That doesn't look anything like the Justice," someone said.

"He's in disguise," LeBeau said.

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