Former Iowa quarterback Randy Duncan will remember former teammate Alex Karras as much for his off-field comedy as for his on-field prowess.
“I think he was just a really funny guy,” Duncan said. “He had a sense of humor that was outstanding.”
Karras, one of Iowa’s greatest football players, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles after suffering from kidney failure. He was 77.
Karras boasted a well-rounded career, ranging from football greatness to silver-screen sizzle. He was one of the most decorated defensive linemen in college football history and a three-time All-Pro with the Detroit Lions. In 1957, Karras became the first of only two defensive linemen to ever finish in the top two in Heisman Trophy voting.
Duncan, who lived next door to Karras in Iowa City, called Karras “a genuine All-American.”
In 1957, Karras won the Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman and was Iowa’s first two-time consensus All-American. Karras started at defensive tackle on the Hawkeyes’ first Rose Bowl team following the 1956 season was named to Iowa’s all-time football team. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.
“Alex not only could he play a great game, he could talk a great game, too,” said veteran radio broadcaster Bob Brooks, who has covered Iowa since 1943. “He was gregarious, a large personality. He let his presence known.”
Karras’ infamous relationship with Coach Forest Evashevski began when the coach recruited him out of Gary, Ind. Evashevski placed Karras in a cabin near Spencer to keep him away from other major programs. They rarely got along during Karras’ Iowa days.
“Stormy. at the least,” Duncan said. “Alex didn’t like him, Evashevski. I think Evashevski liked him because he was our best player.”
Brooks said the two men were alike in their stubbornness. Evashevski once pulled Karras’ scholarship, which led to a spat between the two.
“Evy didn’t like me,” Karras told The Gazette in 1981. “He has his own philosophy, and I didn’t agree with him.”
Karras told Sports Illustrated in 2008 that he called Evashevski to make amends for his behavior at Iowa.
“The acrimony lasted until Evy got seriously ill and Alex reached out to Evy and they patched up their relationship,” Brooks said. “I don’t think that part is too well known.”
“I couldn’t take it any more,” Karras told the magazine. Evashevski died in 2010.
The Lions drafted Karras in the first round — 10th overall — in 1958. He was a four-time Pro Bowler in his 12 seasons with the Lions, which boasted one of the league’s best defenses in that era. Karras, who moonlighted as a pro wrestler, was known as the “Mad Duck” for his tenacity and running style. He was suspended for the 1963 season after betting on NFL games.
In Detroit, Karras played in 161 games and is a member of the Lions’ all-time team. He intercepted four passes and recovered 16 fumbles in his career and was named to the 1960s all-decade team. Packers guard Jerry Kramer described Karras as one of the era’s two best defensive tackles, along with the Rams’ Merlin Olsen. NFL Network named Karras as the eighth-best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I always think of him as a great defensive player, because that’s what he liked,” said Duncan, who finished second in Heisman voting a year after Karras. “He didn’t like to play offense, but that’s what you had to do those days in college. But when he went into the pros, he was probably the first guy that could really rush the passer.”
After retiring in 1971, Karras enjoyed a successful acting career. He worked from 1974-76 on “Monday Night Football” and appeared more than two dozen times on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. He also made an appearance on “Saturday Night Live.”
Karras later spent five seasons as George Papadopoulos alongside his wife of 37 years, Susan Clark, in the situation comedy “Webster.” Karras earned roles in several mini-series and movies, including “Porky’s,” “Victor/Victoria,” “Centennial,” “Paper Lion” and “Against All Odds.” He may be best known for the character Mongo in “Blazing Saddles.” Karras’ line, “Mongo only pawn in game of life,” remains an oft-quoted quip.
“Alex was one of those larger-than-life characters,” Brooks said. “He was a better player than an actor, which gives him credit for being both.”
Karras is survived by his wife and six children. A celebration of his life is planned.