Alex Karras retired from the NFL before I was born. So for me and many others who grew up in places other than Detroit, he was a goofball actor who -- we found out later -- just so happened to be a pretty darn good football player a few decades earlier.
Karras had lived a full life when he died Wednesday morning at the age of 77, and we don't devote a post to every former NFC North player who passes away. But Karras transcended football in a way that didn't often happen for players of his era (1958-71), and in many ways he paved the way for the celebrity status that current NFL players enjoy as a matter of course.
Karras' break came in 1963, when he was a central character in the non-fiction "Paper Lion: Confessions of a Second-string Quarterback," written by sports journalist George Plimpton, who had spent training camp trying out to be a Lions backup quarterback. Karras played himself in the 1968 movie adaptation, and his wit and talents for physical humor helped him move full-time into acting after his retirement in 1970.
His role as Mongo in "Blazing Saddles" made him a household name for many. I mean, who wouldn't remember the guy who punched a horse? In the 1980s, Karras' role in developing and playing a sentimental father on television's "Webster" introduced him to another generation.
This is not to downplay Karras' dominance as a football player in the 1960's, when he made the NFL's All-Decade team as a defensive lineman. The point is that Karras' life was only beginning when he retired from the game at age 35.
The next time you see a former athlete branching out into another form of entertainment unrelated to the game, you can know that Karras played a role in paving that path. And when you see a former athlete fail at it, you'll realize how talented Karras really was.