Alex Karras: The best-known former Iowa football player of all-time

Karras died Wednesday at 77

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It was sad to hear of Wednesday's death of Alex Karras. But the man was suffering from dementia and kidney failure, and that's a rough way to live.

The guy sure lived, though. A four-time All-Pro with the Detroit Lions, and a show-business personality after that. Few scenes in movie comedies ever stuck in peoples' minds like Karras' Mongo punching out a horse in "Blazing Saddles."

The following clip has some NSFW language, but Mel Brooks didn't make hilarious omelettes without cracking a few eggs.

You have to be old to recall Karras, the Iowa Hawkeye defensive tackle of 1956 and 1957. I wasn't around in '56. But you couldn't grow up in Iowa in the 1960s and 1970s and follow football without being reminded that Karras starred here.

Here's all you need to know about how good a player he was: He was second in Heisman Trophy voting in 1957. As a defensive lineman. For a team that didn't repeat as Big Ten-champion, though its overall record was 7-1-1.

Karras was the Outland Award-winner that year. That award, which Robert Gallery of Iowa won in 2003, goes to the nation's top interior lineman.

Karras played on the Iowa team that won the Big Ten title in 1956 and the Rose Bowl that followed. In 1957, he was named to nine All-America teams.

"He was an exceptional football player," Bump Elliott said Wednesday by phone. Elliott was an assistant coach on Iowa's 1956 team, and of course, later came back to Iowa to become its athletic director.

Much that has been said or written about Karras over the years regarding football was off-field stuff. He quit Iowa's team at least a couple of times, feuding with Coach Forest Evashevski. The recruitment of Karras to Iowa by Evashevski's staff is the stuff of Hawkeye lore.

Karras was from Gary, Ind. Evashevski flew Karras to Spencer, Iowa, to keep him away from recruiters of Notre Dame, Michigan, Michigan State and others.

"They figured nobody would know where the hell Spencer was," Karras told the Des Moines Register 36 years ago. "I did a lot of fishing up there and nobody found me."

Recruiting was different then.

Karras was a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions, and had a storied career there.

The reason I say Karras is the most-famous former Hawkeye football player ever, though, was his transition to show business, and his short stint as a color analyst on ABC's Monday Night Football.

Millions of people saw Karras in "Blazing Saddles," the TV series "Webster," and many other roles. I remember him as an over-grateful Marine in an episode of "M*A*S*H." He hosted a 1985 epidsode of "Saturday Night Live."

Alex Karras was a football star, an actor, an author. Quite a life.


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