For Pro Football Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders, the stories and memories of his late teammate Alex Karras will never go away.
They’ve always made Sanders smile. They’ll always make him laugh.
“Alex was really a gentleman inside, but he had that aura about him that said he had to be tough,” Sanders said. “It’s sad that we talk about it at this particular time, but it’s good to remember.”
Karras, 77, died Wednesday at his home in California after suffering from kidney failure and dementia. He was part of the large group of former NFL players suing the league for its negligence over head injuries.
A dominating defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions from 1958-62 and 1964-70, Karras went on to have an equally successful acting career on both television and in the movies.
He was the one who played the role of Mongo, knocking out a horse with one punch, in the popular 1970s movie “Blazing Saddles.”
“That was Alex,” Sanders said. “He was probably one of the few guys that never had to go to acting school because he was a character on and off the field. It was a natural calling for him.”
Sanders chuckles when he thinks back to how Karras would celebrate after games — smoking a cigar in, of all places, the locker-room shower.
“He was the Godfather,” Sanders said. “That’s what Godfathers do. That was his symbol.”
Sanders, now an assistant director for pro personnel with the Lions, joined the team as a rookie tight end in 1968. Karras was nearing the end of his career, but he was still clearly the boss in the locker room.
Rookies had to prove themselves to Karras.
“You had to make him smile,” Sanders said. “You had to get him to acknowledge you to be accepted.
“We were headed to play a game out of town. He passed me a picture. It was of two normal-looking kids. And then he said, ‘Now, this is my wife.’
“It was the ugliest woman I’d ever seen in my entire life. He looked at me right in the eye to see what I would do.
“I just said, ‘You have a nice family.’
“From that time on, I was accepted.”
It wasn’t a photo of Karras’ wife, of course — just one of his many antics to keep people guessing.
Karras lived much of his life on the wild side.
He once threw his shoe at his college coach. Two of his pro coaches lost their jobs because of run-ins with him.
Karras was suspended for the 1963 NFL season, along with Green Bay star Paul Hornung, for gambling activities. Karras turned to professional wrestling during his absence, taking on the likes of all-time great Dick the Bruiser.
Karras’ off-the-field frolics often have overshadowed the fact that he was an outstanding football player.
In 1957, as a senior at Iowa, he was second in the Heisman Trophy balloting, tied for the highest finish by an offensive or defensive lineman.
Karras also was a four-time Pro Bowl selection with the Lions, considered one of the best defensive linemen of his generation. But he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“He deserves it,” Sanders said of Karras and the Hall of Fame. “He did a lot for the game. A lot of people are going to remember the latter part of his career, which carried a negative connotation of who he really was.
“But there was a lot of good in Alex.”
Karras, listed at 6-foot-2 and 248 pounds as a player, was far from an impressive physical specimen, even for those days.
He had poor eyesight, forcing him to wear his trademark thick-framed glasses. Karras was known to tackle anything or anyone at any time. If it wasn’t the player carrying the football, he’d blame it on his eyes.
Karras had a big, burly chest, but his lower body didn’t match.
“Bird legs,” Sanders said. “Alex never lifted weights. Alex just smoked cigars and drank beer.
“If you looked at him, you’d just start laughing. You would not associate this guy with being one of the meanest and toughest guys in the NFL. He just didn’t have that stature. That in itself says a lot about his ability to accomplish the things he did.
“He was just a short, stocky guy that smoked a cigar. That was the wonder. How can this guy be this good looking the way he did?”
In 1968, a couple years before retiring as a player, Karras showed he could act as well as he could sack the quarterback. He played himself in “Paper Lion,” a football movie based on the nonfiction book by George Plimpton.
That appearance helped set up many other roles once Karras’ playing days were over.
In the ABC sitcom “Webster,” he played a young boy’s father while his real-life wife, actress Susan Clark, was the mother.
Karras also spent a couple years in the booth as an analyst on the “Monday Night Football” telecasts, once saying that Otis Sistrunk, the Oakland Raiders’ bald-headed, fierce-looking defensive end, was from the “University of Mars.”
Without a doubt, Alexander George “Alex” Karras lived an entertaining life — for better at times, for worse at times.
On the field, he had a special knack for making plays. Off the field, he kept everyone wondering what was going to happen next.
There’s only one way to celebrate his life: Go light up a cigar in the shower.