The calls came three and four and five times a week in the last year and a half. There were times Carl Brettschneider didn’t want to pick up the phone, most of the times, in fact, but friends are friends and teammates are teammates and all of that matters. Alex Karras would call from Los Angeles and Carl Brettschneider would answer in Las Vegas.
The conversations pretty much always were the same.
“He had Alzheimer’s disease,” Brettschneider said, no more explanation necessary. “It was hard.”
The subject always got around to the concussions.
Fifty years ago those concussions had happened. More than 50 years, some of them, back when professional football captured the television sets and imaginations of America. Jim Brown blasted through the line. Johnny U stood in the pocket, a problem that had to be solved. Mayhem ensued. Bart Starr. Sonny Jurgensen. Fran Tarkenton. The package was irresistible. Chaos. Dirt. Big hits. Concussions.
Brettschneider was young and Karras was young, and they threw themselves around like crazy men playing defense for a succession of pretty good Detroit Lions football teams in the ’60s. The concussions were part of the job.
“We should get money from the National Football League for the damage those concussions did,” Karras, the old defensive tackle now said, captured by his disease and other increasing maladies. “The league owes us …”
Brettschneider, the old outside linebacker, would say that maybe this was true, but the concussions had happened a long time ago. Nobody was going to get paid anything for what happened back then. Who could prove what concussions he had? Records were scarce. Attending physicians were dead. Brettschneider said there were better things to think about at this age. He was 80 years old. Karras was 77. Better things should occupy the mind at this stage of life.
“We should get money from the National Football League for the damage those concussions did,” the next conversation would begin. “The league owes us …”
The dance would be repeated.
* * *
“Alex was a strong man, naturally strong,” Brettschneider said, thinking about better times, happier times after he learned Wednesday about Karras’ death from a combination of kidney disease, heart disease, stomach cancer and dementia. “I remember when they first made us lift weights. Nobody lifted weights when we first played -- crazy when you think about it now. They just brought in these weights and said we were going to have to start lifting.
“I’d never lifted a weight. Neither had Alex. He just walked over … they had 500 pounds or something on the bar … and he just picked it up seven or eight times, then put it down. We all just kind of stared at him.”
Staring at Karras was not unusual. He was a presence.
Not only was he strong, he was smart, he was argumentative, he was funny. The son of a Greek immigrant doctor from Gary, Ind., he was the first-round draft pick of the Lions in 1958. He arrived, straight from the University of Iowa, settled into the front four for 12 of the next 13 years. At 6-foot-2, 248 pounds, he was small for his position, but brought an aggression with him that wasn’t easily matched. He attacked offensive linemen straight ahead, slam, then zipped around the side of them, whoosh. He attacked both ways. He was a load. He also was half blind.
His poor eyesight forced him to wear thick glasses everywhere, except on the field. Glasses were not allowed on the field. Contact lenses had not been perfected. He played all 161 games of his career in a fog.
“He couldn’t see the scoreboard, couldn’t see the clock,” Roger Brown, the tackle next to him, said. “He always was asking me how much time was left, how much yardage. So we were talking for the whole game. When came to the bench, he’d put on the glasses and was able to see.”
Life in the fog had at least one embarrassing moment. Karras’ older brother, Ted, was a guard for the Chicago Bears. Luckily, he was on the other side of the line most of the time. The guard who tried to block Karras usually was Roger Davis. In a certain game against the Bears, Karras felt Davis was holding him. Karras did not like this. He told Davis that there would be repercussions if he were held again.
Next play? Held again. Repercussions. Karras grabbed his assailant. Threw him to the ground. Stepped on him. Warned him that worse punishment would arrive with further transgressions.
“Are you nuts, Alex?” the assailant said. “I’m your brother.”
The guards had been flipped on the play. Karras, in the fog, simply attacked the other-colored shirts in front of him.
“That was what he did,” Roger Brown said. “Tackle the uniforms. That’s all he had to do.”
In 1963, what would have been his sixth season, two important things happened for Karras. The first was that he was suspended for a year for gambling on NFL games. The second was that George Plimpton, the writer, came to Detroit to play quarterback for the Lions for one series of downs in an exhibition game, part of a project that eventually became the book “Paper Lion,” which eventually became a movie.
The suspension gave Karras notoriety beyond the defensive line. Golden Boy running back Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers also was suspended. The two names were grouped together. Karras’ sin was that he had bet on football games at the Lindell A.C., the sports bar where he spent a lot of time. He admitted that he did. He was suspended amidst large headlines.
This gave him a year off, where he did a bunch of things that included selling Bibles door-to-door and wresting against Dick the Bruiser, noted bad man, in a sold out Detroit Olympia. The sellout was preceded by a pre-fight altercation in front of the Lindell A.C., which obviously was a busy place. Police were called. Arrests were made. Tickets were sold.
“I wasn’t at the Lindell more than few times, but that was one of them,” Carl Brettschneider said. “People were flying every which way. It was something to see.”
The suspension caused Karras to miss the exhibition game when Plimpton played quarterback. This pretty much kept Karras out of the book, but Plimpton had become close to the Lions and would return and return again. He met Karras and was fascinated. A second Lions book, “Mad Ducks and Bears” came out of the fascination. Karras was the Mad Duck.
In a description of his first meeting with the Mad Duck, Plimpton went to a hotel room where a bunch of Lions were killing time on the day of a game with the Philadelphia Eagles. Karras was lying on a bed -- shook hands while lying on the bed -- making comments about what was on the television. A half-dozen players listened to what he said.
His complaint, as a cigarette commercial played on the screen, was that ugly people had no chance to make commercials. He had no chance. The ad agencies would pick someone like Lions quarterback Milt Plum, who didn’t even smoke, didn’t even know how to hold a cigarette, because he was trim and good-looking. Karras said he himself had smoked since he was 8 years old. Given the motivation, he could even blow smoke rings. You know what the ad agency would say? “He’s OK on those smoke rings, but he’s got the face of a mechanic who’s gotten squashed working under a large touring car.”
“There ought to be a union of us ugly cruds,” Karras lamented, and Plimpton wrote. “I’d like to see an ad, a TV ad, in which this great mountain of a girl comes out, just horrible-looking, with a name like Betty Home, and she’s advertising nylons, y’see, and she draws on a pair of nylons over those enormous fat thighs. ‘Sheer,’ she says, working her lips up the way those thin models do.”
Who knew that this would happen? Who knew that Karras would be Betty Home?
* * *
“When they wrote the movie, ‘Paper Lion,’ they put in more and more things for Alex,” Roger Brown said. “That started everything. Even while they were doing the movie they put in more things. George liked him. The movie people liked him. That’s where it all started.”
Karras was -- in the words of the movie business -- discovered. The movie came out in 1968 and Alan Alda played George Plimpton and Alex played Alex and did a heck of a job. He was not ugly any more. He was a genial, big Everyman, a teddy bear. He went on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Johnny liked him. America liked him. The same way he made his teammates smile, he made everyone else smile.
He played three more seasons with the Lions, was released in 1971 and began a film and television career. Need an amiable big lout? Need a lout of any dimension? He was your man. In 1974 he played Mongo in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” where he rode into town on a white ox, knocked out a horse with one good punch and said “Mongo only pawn in game of life.” If he never played another role, his place was secured in movie memories.
“Before I was a football player, I was an actor,” he said more than once. “I’ve been an actor all my life.”
He was part of the Monday Night Football broadcast team with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford for three years. He played assorted parts in assorted shows from “McMillan and Wife” to “M*A*S*H” to “The Odd Couple.” He played George Zaharias, husband to Babe Didrikson Zaharias in a biopic, then married Susan Clark, his co-star. They were a Hollywood couple, famous. They starred with little Emmanuel Lewis for six years in “Webster,” a television hit. Karras lived a whole second famous life after football. A more famous life. He made commercials. He made a lot of commercials.
“He was the guy America thought he was,” Roger Brown said. “All of those parts he played … they were parts of him. He was kind. He was a competitor. He was a good friend. He was funny … he’d hit you with it when you least expected it. He’d let out that laugh. He’d come up with it. The roles he played were just extensions of Alex.”
Then it all ended. Ended too early.
The movies stopped in the last 10 years or so. The notoriety stopped. The dementia settled in, heavier and heavier as the years passed. Brettschneider said Karras developed a social anxiety disorder, didn’t want to meet new people. He was fine with people he knew, but didn’t want to be introduced to anyone else.
“He’d talk with my wife and me,” the old linebacker said. “But if you wanted to introduce him to someone 20 feet away, oh, no, he didn’t want to do it.”
Brettschneider said he kept in touch until the end. Brown also kept in touch. He wanted Karras to come back to Detroit to be honored, to be part of a group called The Gridiron Greats. Karras declined. Brown understood. He knew the situation. He also heard the talk about concussions. That was Karras last crusade.
“Did you have any concussions?” Brown was asked.
“I counted six,” he said. “That’s the ones I know.”
He said he still has a helmet from when he and Karras played. He described it as a “shell and a couple of straps.” He said he would be hit sometimes, no concussion, just hit, and the helmet would split in half. He would go back to the bench and someone would give him another helmet. He would go back and play.
That was the way everyone did it back then.