Alex Karras was from the generation of NFL foot soldiers: faceless linemen, doomed to anonymity, in a game that hadn't quite captured the public's fancy. He was good, better than good; he nearly won the Heisman Trophy as a defensive tackle at Iowa and was a three-time All-Pro for the Lions until he retired after the 1970 season. Offensive guards seldom had answers for his various moves, or even his fierce bull rushes, no matter that he was relatively undersized at 6'2" and 248 pounds. Still, during a time of sporadic interest and scant coverage (the first Super Bowl wasn't until '67), hardly anybody in the world got less attention than an NFL lineman.
And then Karras knocked out a horse with one punch. It's a feature of public life that celebrity often has less to do with achievement than with the sheer surprise of performance. So it is that Karras, one of the alltime great linemen, shall forever be remembered first for his role in Mel Brooks's film Blazing Saddles, in which he played a hulking, dim-witted creature with an indisposition toward equine stand-ins, and one great line: "Mongo only pawn in game of life." Here it is, high up in his obituary—it can't be helped. Karras, who died last week at age 77 (of a combination of ailments, at least one, dementia, for which he held the NFL accountable), may have been a wonderful football player but ... man, one punch!
In fact, Karras was as well suited for that kind of fame as he was for sports stardom. Even as one of those indistinguishable linemen, he seemed to keep bursting from the confines of his overlooked occupation. First, in 1963, he got nailed for gambling; he was suspended for a year by commissioner Pete Rozelle (along with Green Bay glamour puss Paul Hornung). That same year, writer George Plimpton undertook a stunt of participatory journalism in Detroit (the book Paper Lion is about his misadventures as a pro quarterback). In the course of his research, Plimpton was much taken with the irrepressible Karras, and his character became central to the movie that followed. Central enough that Karras was allowed to play himself in the 1968 film, cementing his reputation for roguishness.
That reputation provided an odd segue into show business, as a guest on The Tonight Show, then as an analyst on Monday Night Football. (Who can forget his observation as the camera lingered on the shaved, steaming head of one of the players—"There's Otis Sistrunk, from the University of Mars"?) That impishness, which offset his presumably violent bulk, set him on a surprising second career as an actor, one that proved longer and certainly more profitable than his NFL career. There were parts in TV shows and, of course, Blazing Saddles, as well as a role as the husband in a biopic of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. It was on that film that he met Susan Clark, whom he married in 1980, and who remained his Babe to the end.
The two of them starred in Webster, an amiable sitcom that ran from 1983 to '89, further distancing Karras from the source of his stardom. But that is the irony of a long and rich life; it becomes more and more difficult to remember what set it all in motion: There once was a better (and far more durable) athlete in a four-point stance than that damn horse.