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Alex Karras, former Hawkeye football star, dies at 77

[ 0 ] October 10, 2012 |

They played single-platoon football in the mid-1950s, when Alex Karras was an all-American lineman at Iowa. There was never any question about which side of the ball Karras preferred.

“He wanted to play defense all the time,” teammate and Hawkeye quarterback Randy Duncan recalled. “He didn’t want to play on offense. I used to tease him. I’d say, “You never block for the quarterback. You’re always waiting to kill someone on defense.”

Karras, a two-time all-American for the Hawkeyes and the 1957 Outland Trophy winner who went on to successful NFL and acting careers, died in Los Angeles today. He was 77. Karras had been suffering from kidney disease, heart disease, stomach cancer and dementia.

“I last talked to him two or three years ago,” said Duncan, a Des Moines attorney and the 1958 Heisman Trophy runner-up. “At that time he was on his way out. You could just see it.”

Karras was also a Heisman Trophy runner-up as a senior, in 1957, unprecedented for a lineman. He was named to 10 different all-American teams in addition to receiving his Outland Trophy hardware.

“He was a great guy,” Duncan said. “And a great teammate.”

Karras was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991, was a member of the inaugural Iowa Lettermen’s Club Hall of Fame and was named to the Hawkeyes’ all-time football team in 1989. He was a first-team all-Big Ten choice in both 1956, when Iowa won the conference title and the Rose Bowl under coach Forest Evashevski, and 1957.

Iowa’s 1956 Rose Bowl bid came after a 6-0 upset of Ohio State in Iowa City. Karras had a quarterback sack on the final play of the game.

“He wasn’t the toughest, fastest guy around,” Duncan said. “But he was quick. So quick. Nobody could block him. He could spin out of a double-team, be right there and get the guy. It was just incredible how quick he was.”

Duncan considers Karras the first of what has evolved into today’s pass-rushing specialists.

“They didn’t have those pass rushers in the NFL like they do now,” Duncan said. “He was the first one. They couldn’t block him. He’d be in the quarterback’s face all the time.”

Karras came to Iowa from Gary, Ind., and that was an incredible journey. Iowa hid Karras for a summer in Spencer to keep him away from other recruiters before he arrived in Iowa City.

“That’s a true story,” Duncan said.

When Karras was inducted into the Des Moines Sunday Register in 1977, he said, “They figured nobody would know where the hell Spencer was. A lot of other schools – Notre Dame, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and others – were trying to recruit me, and I guess that’s why Evashevski took me to Spencer. I did a lot of fishing up there and nobody found me.”

Karras made his varsity debut as a sophomore in 1955, but things didn’t go well. He struggled with a leg injury, his weight ballooned and he didn’t even letter. Karras decided to drop out of Iowa and return to Gary. His mother had other ideas.

“If you quit now you’ll quit again, when things get tough,” she told him.

Karras returned to school and had an all-America season in


“From second string to all-America in one season just about represents the change in big Alex,” Iowa assistant coach Bob Flora said.

Karras had a running rivalry with the iron-willed Evashevski.

“There is nothing I liked about Forest Evashevski,” Karras told the Register in 1977.

Karras was a first-round NFL draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 1958, and played for 12 seasons. Duncan recalls taking a phone call one day from “Paper Lion” author George Plimpton.

“Plimpton loved Alex Karras,” Duncan said. “Alex claimed he made Evashevski back down and had him scared. I told Plimpton, “That’s a bunch of baloney.’ Because everyone was scared to death of Evy. Including Alex.”



Former college teammate Randy Duncan was surprised to see Alex Karras have success as an actor after his football career ended.

“I didn’t know he had that kind of ability,” Duncan said. “He was a funny, funny guy.”

Karras is best known for his role as Mongo in “Blazing Saddles.” Other prominent roles came in “Victor Victoria” and “Porky’s.” Karras later had a well-known role in the TV sitcom “Webster.”

Karras signed a professional wrestling contract with Des Moines promoter Pinkie George. He made his debut at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Des Moines on Jan. 29, 1958. Karras wrestled for several years.

Karras played 12 seasons in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. He played from 1958 to 1962 and 1964 to 1966. He was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling along with Green Bay’s Paul Hornung, later admitting he bet on games in which he played. Karras was named to the NFL’s All-Pro team three times. He was 35 years old when his NFL career ended.

Karras was on the field when Tom Dempsey of New Orleans kicked a record 63-yard field goal to beat the visiting Lions, 19-17, in 1970. Karras later said he didn’t even rush on the play because he thought someone attempting such a long field goal was folly.

Karras later joined Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell in the booth for Monday Night Football from 1974 to 1976.



Back in the 1950s, college football teams often ate streak for their pre-game meal. Alex Karras was the exception, according to Iowa teammate Randy Duncan.

“He told all the guys he’d give them his steak because he wanted all the fat,” Duncan said. “He’d wind up with eight or nine things of fat. That’s what he wanted for the meal. Alex felt the fat was good for him and got him going.”



“All of us associated with the Iowa football program are saddened to hear of the passing of Alex Karras, and extend our condolences to the entire Karras family,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “Alex played a key role in the success of Iowa football during his career and will always be remembered as a leader of the great Iowa teams of that era. He served as an outstanding representative of Hawkeye football and the University of Iowa throughout his career.”


Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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