Alex Karras played football when I was growing up in Pittsburgh. Unless it was Thanksgiving, not many Lions games were on television. Each week, I'd watch the highlights from shows produced by NFL Films, which introduced me to how good Karras was as a defensive lineman.
Television also opened the window for the country to get to know Karras as a person.
He was funny. Because of his humor, he paved the way for football players to become entertainers. That's why his death at the age of 77 is such a loss. His ability to laugh about the game of football and himself helped build the brand of this sport.
Karras is special because he accomplished that despite playing along the line of scrimmage. It's easy for a star quarterback or star running back to be a TV star. It's not as easy for a 248-pound lineman because the common man can't identify with him. Few people are as big as a lineman, but Karras, through his humor, made viewers feel as though he was the lunch-pail type of guy with whom they'd love to share a beer and talk football.
Karras was one of Johnny Carson's favorite guests on "The Tonight Show. " He would sit on the couch next to Carson's desk and relate crazy football stories.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, many of the players were simply big bodies who wore helmets, and you never got to know them. Those players didn't have social media to express their views. There weren't reality shows. Cable television wasn't everywhere. You had three major networks and the local stations.
Karras was an instant star because you immediately liked him. When he expanded into movies and television, his popularity grew. His scenes as Mongo in "Blazing Saddles" were some of the most memorable moments in comedy. Only Alex Karras would get a laugh out of slugging a horse.
Through a friend, I got a note from one of his former teammates, Greg Barton. He played with Karras from 1968 to 1970, and Karras did the television commentary for Canadian Football League games for a couple of years when Barton played in the CFL.
"He is one of the funniest men I have ever been around,'' Barton said. "Again, he was good to me and a friend. I remember playing a TV game in Canada and Alex was doing the color. I had talked to him prior to the game and told him that my father was very ill. He 'talked' to my dad on national television telling him he did a great job in raising a son and lots of other nice things. Boy that meant a lot to me.''
Karras was a great football player, but he will always be remembered for his humor. We miss you, Alex.