Alex Karras, the former NFL Pro Bowl defensive lineman who went from sacking quarterbacks to memorably KO’ing a horse in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, has died in Los Angeles today. He was 77 and sadly, he is among a growing number of football greats who suffered from dementia. Karras played three decades in the NFL and belied the image of the big lug defensive lineman by using his charm and sense of humor to become quite successful in television and films.
That effort started during his football career when he played himself in the film Paper Lion. That movie starred Alan Alda as George Plimpton as the journalist chronicled for Sports Illustrated (and later a book) his painful attempt to audition as quarterback for the Detroit Lions and win some respect for Lions players who tossed him around like a rag doll. Though Karras was one of the great football linemen, his legacy was marred when he was suspended for a season after admitting that he had gambled on games when the NFL scrutinized his part-ownership of a bar frequented by gamblers.
Post-football, Karras compiled a long list of TV credits that included two seasons in the Monday Night Football booth with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford. He also starred as the sensitive dad in the 1983-1987 ABC series Webster. His movie credits included Against All Odds, and he reported was considered to play Connie’s philandering husband Carlo in The Godfather (Sonny Corleone would have had his hands full wiping the floor with Karras on that New York sidewalk).
His physical deterioration from dementia — he was among the hundreds of former NFL players who sued the league in April over concussion-related injuries — made him one of the high-profile casualties of a problem that more and more haunts the NFL. Karras racked up his injuries during an era when athletes regularly played in pain for fear of losing their jobs. Karras later suffered from cancer and heart disease.
I prefer to remember him as Mongo, the brutish but eventually loveable lug from Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, who delivered unforgettable lines like this one: