October 10, 2012
Before he was Webster's dad, Alex Karras was a fiery, QB-hating NFLer
By JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency
Most people probably will remember Alex Karras as an actor.
He had memorable roles, both comedic and dramatic, such as the dad in the 1980s TV series Webster.
Or the cowboy lug who punched out the horse in Mel Brooks' classic big-screen comedy Blazing Saddles.
But before becoming an acting star, Karras -- who died of complications from kidney failure at age 77 -- was one of the NFL's best, and meanest, defensive tackles during the 1960s with the Detroit Lions.
His competitive fire was legendary.
One incident best encapsulates it. I'd heard it retold in various forms while growing up across the river from Detroit, in Windsor, Ont.
It involved a late-game loss by the Lions in 1962 to Vince Lombardi's highest-scoring and, arguably, best Green Bay Packers team.
Upon learning of Karras' death, I tried to track down a surviving teammate to see if the story was true.
Carl Brettschneider, a linebacker and good friend of Karras on the Lions from 1960 to 1963, is now 78, living in Las Vegas.
"Alex was so competitive," Brettschneider said over the phone.
"What happened was we were leading in Green Bay, 7-6, and there was maybe a minute left. And it was pouring down rain the whole game. We'd held that undefeated Packers team to just two field goals, in all that mud.
"So, our coaches decided to throw a pass from our own 20-yard line, instead of setting up to punt the ball, because we had a great defence then. Milt Plum, our quarterback, threw a pass to Terry Barr, and Barr fell down -- because it was so muddy -- just as the ball got there. The ball went right into Herb Adderley's hands. (Adderley was Packers defensive back and future Hall of Famer.)
"They kicked a field goal and that was it. We lost 9-7."
That Lions defence indeed was, along with Green Bay's, far and away the best in the NFL in 1962. Detroit surrendered only 12.6 points and 88 rushing yards per game on average.
The Lions had badly wanted to win that game in Green Bay, played 50 years and three days ago.
It was a ruinous loss. To be so close to defeating Lombardi's dream team featuring glamour-boy quarterback Bart Starr and running back Jim Taylor -- only to lose on a terrible gaffe. Some Lions defenders suspected Plum called the pass himself.
Cue the Karras legend ...
"We all went into the locker room, and everybody (on defence) was really mad," Brettschneider said. "Especially Alex. He was on one side of the dressing room, and Milt Plum was on the other. Alex took off his helmet and threw it at Milt. Right across the room."
Other versions of the story contend that Karras had to be forcibly restrained by his defensive teammates from tearing Plum's head off, he was so livid. Brettschneider said he doesn't remember that.
Karras later proudly told Detroit News columnist Jerry Green that he missed Plum by only inches with the helmet hurl; Karras hated all "milk drinking" quarterbacks, even Detroit's.
The Packers went on to win the NFL championship in 1962. They finished 14-1, just short of achieving the first perfect season in NFL history, 10 years before the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
The one loss? To the Lions, who avenged their rain-soaked gutting by smoking the Packers 26-14 in the return game at Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Plum presumably had a good game, no doubt playing for his life.
"Alex got fired up for every game, and he stayed fired up," Brettschneider said.
Karras had hated playing both ways at the University of Iowa, because all he wanted to do was crush quarterbacks. That he did with regularity in the NFL from 1958 through 1970, only in Detroit.
Off the field, another Karras legend was growing. Nicknamed "The Mad Duck" he was a joker in the locker room, and a natural in front of the camera.
Brettschneider wasn't surprised Karras went on to become a star actor.
"Every year we had a rookie (initiation) show," Brettschneider recalled, chuckling. "Alex once got dressed up like a German Nazi, and he brought this dog, a collie or something -- I don't know where he got it. He ran the show, and he had this whip, and was cracking it. It was hilarious."
Karras as much successfully auditioned for a post-NFL acting career by cutting up Johnny Carson regularly on his Tonight Show.
For the next two decades, he acted. He also had a three-year stint as a commentator on Monday Night Football.
Over the past five years or so, Karras had been struggling with Alzheimer's. Yet he still called old friend Brettschneider on the phone, "probably 364 days a year."
Another Lions teammate, Hall of Fame defensive back Yale Lary, on Wednesday told me that Karras was so funny "he was a comic, really," but more than that "a really nice guy."
Milt Plum, and every other NFL quarterback in the 1960s, might not have agreed.
Lions teammate says Karras wasn't a bettor
Alex Karras infamously was suspended for the entire 1963 season for gambling on pro football.
Detroit Lions teammate Carl Brettschneider, who with his wife, Louise, often socialized with Karras and first wife, Joanie, says it was a misunderstanding.
"The dumb thing he did was he went on the Huntley/Brinkley (TV news) show," Brettschneider said in a telephone interview Wednesday, after hearing of Karras' death. "And he went on there and bragged about how he gambled all this money -- thousands of dollars. He didn't realize that somebody would hear that. Like the commissioner.
"Alex never bet more than $5 in his life. I knew him that well."
"Most of us feel like he should be in the Hall of Fame. He was that good. But of course the gambling thing (prevents it)."