Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs When I heard the news last week that former Detroit Lions lineman Alex Karras had died, I thought of the Thanksgiving dinners the defensive lineman had ruined for Green Bay Packers fans by tormenting quarterback Bart Starr. Then I thought of the wonderfully unconventional sportswriter George Plimpton, and finally I thought of actor Alan Alda.
The Packers played the Lions in Detroit every Thanksgiving Day from 1951 until 1963. In that final year of their holiday series, the Packers went 14-1 but failed in their bid for a third straight NFL championship trophy. The only game they lost that season was the turkey trot in the Motor City when Karras and his ferocious linemates sacked Starr nine times in the first half alone.
Karras was known as an affable character off the field and the kind of mean football player who wouldn’t hesitate to punch his brother in the face — in fact he did that once at the bottom of a pile. Of course, Karras could rely on the fact that he was nearsighted and didn’t recognize his kin in a game against the lovable Chicago Bears.
The next year, 1963, Karras and my Packers hero, Paul Hornung, were both suspended for gambling on games. I’ll tell you right now that neither one ever threw a game, and Commissioner Pete Rozelle said he never found any evidence of that. Both players were reinstated in 1964.
The late Plimpton, a hero of another sort to me, enters this storyline in 1963 when the journalist, who was never a professional athlete, arranged to try out for the role of the Detroit Lions’ third-string quarterback. The coaches were in on the ruse from the beginning, but the other players were left to figure it out for themselves.
Plimpton was very fortunate that Karras was not in training camp that season.
Plimpton stumbled and bumbled through practices and a scrimmage, but it was the rare glimpses (remember, there was no Twitter in 1963) into the personalities behind the facemasks that made “Paper Lion” (the book came out in 1966) a classic of sports writing.
Finally, we come to Alda, of "Mash" fame. He was a natural to play Plimpton in the movie version of “Paper Lion.”
Karras also had an acting career. He’s probably best known for playing the character Mongo in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” in which he appeared to have punched a horse.
But his TV sitcom role in the 1980s “Webster,” in which he played the white adoptive father of an African American boy, was probably a legacy he would have preferred.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com