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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alex Karras, Mad Duck, and Mongo

Alex Karras with the Hawkeyes in 1956
Alex Karras did not like coach  Forest Evashevski.  It is probably not too strong to say he hated him. Around the University of Iowa, where he was the head football coach, Evashevski was known as "Evy."  He was a legendary coach.   He was also an asshole.  At times.  

Alex Karras died this week.  He was 77.  I am a year older.  I think of him because he was part of one the more interesting episodes of my life.   Old people tend to think of those things. 

It was 1956.  I worked on the sports desk at the Davenport, Iowa, Morning Democrat.   Morning newspapers covered a lot of sports, because sports nuts bought morning papers so they could talk about sports at work.  I did not know Alex Karras personally, but I met him when I was sent to help cover the football press day at the University of Iowa.   The sports editor got to  talk to the team members.  I went along to help a photographer lug around his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and all the film plates for taking lots of pictures.  Actually I went along to drive because the sports editor had spent too much time at the country club bar holding forth about how he was going to go out and make the definitive assessment of the Iowa football team.  It was part of my job to go out to the country club and drive him to work when he held forth at the bar too diligently.  Which was almost every day.  He spent most of his time at work downstairs at the Ringside Tap over which the newspaper offices were located.  He could climb up the stairs to get to work from there.

It was a banner year for Iowa football, as in sport page headline banner. Iowa was the Big Ten champion, won a trip to the Rose Bowl, and won the game.  Alex Karras was a lineman who loved playing defense.  His specialty was slipping through the offenses' line and taking out quarter backs.  In1956, he certified Iowa's Big Ten championship and trip to the Rose Bow by sacking an Ohio State quarterback during the last play of the game.   He went on to use that talent for 13 years with the Detroit Lions.  

The newspaper loved Alex Karras because he made so much sports news copy.  He was always messing with Evy.  When Evy reneged on a promise to put Karras in the 1956 season's first game, he got so pissed that he threw a shoe at the coach and quit the team.  Other coaches and team members lured him back, but Karras put a condition on his return that Evashevski would not talk to him.  Other team members, at the time and since, told me Evashevski was a bully.  That was my experience, too.  Bullies tend to be decent and courteous only to people they want to suck up to.  Others they dismiss.

I had that experience on that press day.  Our sports editor was famous.  During World War II, he started a page in which he invited letters from servicemen serving throughout the world.  He gained fame, which made him a golfing buddy with people like Bing Crosby.  He was also a well known boxing referee.  By the time I worked for him. he was celebrating his fame on a daily basis at a bar.  He liked to hold forth downstairs at the Ringside Tap where former, punch-drunk boxers would come and live over old fights with him.  They all insisted that they were contenders.  

On that press day, Evy sought out the sports editor, posed for some photos, and looked at me as if I was a stray dog that wandered on to the field.  At that time, I weighed less than 130 pounds and looked like I should be practicing a violin and writing lovely poems in my diary, not reporting on sports.  It was while I was going around with my notebook taking down information for photo cutlines that I talked to Alex Karras. As I checked the spelling of his name, he asked, for some reason, if I was a college student.  I explained that yes, but I was not attending during that semester because I had to drop out and work to earn some tuition money.  He gave me a pleasant look and said something about having to attend college to do the job he wanted.  He indicated that he was not particularly interested in school but understood those who were and were trying to find ways to attend.  I also remember that he was a very funny guy and I hung out around him and his friends to pick up on the banter.

He never received a degree at Iowa.  Years later, he quipped,"I never graduated from Iowa, but I was only there for two terms -- Truman's and Eisenhower's."

Despite the fact that there was about a hundred pounds difference in weight and a half a foot difference in height between me and Karras, I always felt a kinship with him and an interest in what he did.  We shared a sense of the absurd aspects of college.  But he also made me feel for a time, unlike what Evashevski did, that I was worthy of some notice and respect.  There was a decency in Karras that was often absent in those who sought athletic fame.  

 I know little about Karras at Iowa after that winning season.  Because I dropped out of  college to work, I lost my draft deferment, and in early 1957 was on my way to Germany with the U.S. Army.  I did take note of  Karras over the years, but paid no special attention to his years with the Lions.  I had lost respect and interest in professional sports, and have often seen the professionalization of university sports program as counterproductive to educational purposes.  But during that time as a sports writer, I was turned off by an aspect of sports.

That turn-off came from those times when the sports editor held forth at the Ringside Tap with old friends from boxing.  Those punch-drunk men who suffered brain damage to entertain others with what was the epitome of macho play weighed heavy on my conscience.  Minds are terrible things to waste, and they had wasted theirs in an endeavor that destroyed their real chances to rise to full manhood.  A few years back, Alex Karras was the lead complainant in a lawsuit against the NFL for not protecting against the concussions and resulting brain injuries.  In his later years, Karras suffered from dementia.  Accounts of friends who visited him and said he could not remember much and was clearly declining were depressing. He realized that those hard tackles were costing him his full mental powers.   But like the man who sacked the Ohio State quarterback in the last play of a game, Karras was making an effort to contribute something to the better of humanity.  For all his roughness, Karras always evinced a sense of humor and a sense of decency that made him stand out.

In 2008, when Forest Evashevski was 90 and in failing health, Alex Karras called him up and apologized for his behavior  during those football years at Iowa.  That was essential Karras.  

I prefer to remember him as Mongo, who punched out a horse, in Blazing Saddles, a movie that changed the way Americans think about race.  And his funny, funny role in Victor Victoria, which challenged some notions about sexual preferences and equality.  

There was something about Alex Karras that never really left Gary, Indiania, and demonstrated on the side of real people.  He was a consequential person.

Alex Karras as Mongo.

Alex Karras and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States