Baseball has its clowns -- "Spaceman" Bill Lee, the Gashouse Gang, the 2004 Red Sox calling themselves "The Idiots."  Basketball has "clown princes," the Harlem Globetrotters.  But football is a grim morality play, with conniving coaches, angst-ridden quarterbacks, surly lineman.  Super Bowls are so exalted they are counted in Roman numerals.  How, then, to explain Alex Karras?

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     Number 71 was a ferocious, all-pro tackle, but off the field the Detroit Lions never knew what Alex Karras would say next.  Once, rising to speak at a team dinner, he played a high school coach wrapping up a losing season.  "We had our problems this year.  We didn't have enough helmets to go around and some of the fellows had to wear coal scuttles.  Then, we had the big problem over the shoes, that time we took a trip to play the Highland Cream Teachers..."

       Others remembered his riffs on his past lives.  Sitting in a hotel room, chomping a cigar, Karras recalled being Hitler's aide-de-camp.  "Hitler was not an ordinary Joe."   Questioned by teammates, Karras improvised.  Seems Eva Braun had been his sister.  And all those photos of her "bare-ass" beside Hitler in uniform?  "You ever see Hitler bare-ass?  The answer is no.  The fact was, and everybody around headquarters knew it, that Hitler a woman -- my aunt, if you really want to know.  Aunt Hilda, and quite a trial she turned out to be."

       Soon Hitler/Hilda morphed into Eva's mother.  And Eva's father?  "You're looking at him," Karras said.

       "You!  But Eva Braun was your sister.”

       "Both sister and daughter," Karras said.  "Yep.  Adolf Hitler was my wife."

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       Nicknamed “the Mad Duck,” Karras stood 6'2, 250 pounds.  But he had the quickness of a running back. "There is no other tackle like him," one opponent said. "He has inside and outside moves, a bull move where he puts his head down and runs over you, or he’ll just stutter-step you like a ballet dancer.”  But Karras' ferocity was fueled by more than skill.

       Raised in industrial Gary, Indiana, Karras loathed quarterbacks -- "people who've had music lessons and a barber who calls them 'Master Harry.'  And they go on to Eastern colleges and talk snuffy. . . and they have these thin, delicate noses. . . hell, I don't think they piss."

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       For Karras, football was class warfare -- working class linemen battling elite quarterbacks and wimpy field goal kickers.  On the Tonight Show, he described smashing and grinding the opponent into a fourth down. "And then the coach calls on some European soccer player.  'Oh Julian!  Julian!'  And this little guy comes out saying, 'I'm going to kick a touchdown!'"

       Stories about Karras spread.  How he sold Bibles one off-season, telling those who already had Bibles that his was a new, German edition.  "They've changed it.  They've fooled around with the ending... You remember all that business about the Resurrection and Christ rising up from the dead and sitting on the right hand of God?  Well, that's not the way this German Bible has it.  They roll away the stone and guess who's sitting in there looking out, smart as brass?"  It would cost them $15 to find out.


      George Plimpton, training with the Lions to write Paper Lion, saw Karras as "a clown with a fine sense of timing."  But Plimpton was surprised over dinner to see Karras jamming a forkful of salad into his own forehead.  "Well, why does the mouth always have to get all the food?" Karras explained.  "Why can't it be passed around to other parts of the face?"

       In 1968, Karras played himself in the movie "Paper Lion."  He soon got a call from Lucille Ball, offering to "find him work out here."  Over the next two decades he appeared in dozens of TV shows and 17 movies.  His most famous role was in "Blazing Saddles." (Click, then click again to watch.)

       No screen could capture his spontaneous wit.  Karras was typecast as a sitcom father, a wrestler, a walk-on boyfriend.  But off screen. . . 


       As football moved through Super Bowls XI, XII, XIII... the Alex Karras Golf Tournament came to Flint, Michigan.  Auto execs lined up to golf with ex-Lions.  But at the first tee, hidden amplifiers blared the sounds of roaring lions, car crashes, a cannon.  A little man with a guitar and donkeys strolled the greens playing "The Mexican Hat Dance."  Winning foursomes got prizes, of course.  Flashlights.  Socks.  Dominoes. 

       And wait till next year's tournament, Karras said.  There would be "trumpeters in the trees."  Old Scottish people as caddies. "One hundred and fifty years old, but they 'know the course.'  And they give these Flint guys this weird advice -- like they show the guy an angle off the tee facing a forest that goes all the way to the Canadian border and they say, 'Clear that tree and you're home free. . .'"

       Alex Karras died in 2012 but not before joining other players suing the NFL for hiding data about concussions.  Football, growing more grim by the year, could use another like him.