The story of the NFL stretches back ninety-two years, to 1920. It has existed as long as the greatest lifetime of a man. The NFL’s most celebrated chronicler, Ed Sabol, is just four years its elder—and tragically, he has already outlived his equally celebrated son.
The history of the NFL is at at turning point: when Ed Sabol passes, the last person who can understand and share its entire story will be gone. Like baseball, the history of the NFL will have to be told through generations, kept and tended and groomed and passed down from parent to child; from scribe to scribe.
Earlier this week, Fredorrarci at The Classical wrote a fascinating piece about being a foreigner trying to understand baseball. This line struck a chord with me:
My principle sporting passion, soccer, seems to be in the process of shedding its memory, believing itself to be an invincible megabeing that sprung from nothing, fully mega, around 1992.
I have often complained about this phenomenon in the NFL, where anything that happened before Jerry Rice never happened. With every franchise relocation, with every schedule realignment, with every record broken our collective sporting consciousness distances itself further from its glorious past. History becomes legend, legend becomes myth, and things which should not be forgotten fall out of memory.
This week, Alex Karras passed away.
I knew him first as Webster’s dad, a wise and gentle giant with a quick wit and a big heart. I knew him second as ‘Alex Karras, Former Detroit Lion’ in sundry TV appearances, local commercials, and the like. I knew him third as Mongo in Blazing Saddles, and nary an internet scribe mourned Karras’s passing this week without quoting his immortal line. I knew him most recently as the ringleader of the Lions' rowdy band in George Plimpton's Paper Lion.
It is this amalgam of genial wiseacre, big-hearted big guy, and former jock who was anything but dumb that most of us deep in the football Internet streets will picture when we think of The Mad Duck.
It is a gravely incomplete picture.
"For me, Alex Karras will always be a pink giant with a towel wrapped around his waist. He will always have a scowl on his face, a cigar in one paw and a cold beer in the other."
Karras was a fiercely competitive player, a relentless hater and destroyer of quarterbacks. Karras, as Greg Eno reminds us, once nearly killed his own quarterback, Milt Plum. Karras threw his helmet at Plum’s head after Plum cost the Lions a crucial win over the Packers with a late interception.
Karras moonlighted as a professional wrestler. He owned a bar—and not just any bar, a seedy joint with a sports betting ring with ties to the mob. After admitting he’d placed bets on the NFL, too, Karras was suspended for a year. During his suspension, he went back to pro wrestling and kept on doing his thing. When he got unsuspended, he went right back to humiliating quarterbacks, rookies, kickers and other “milk drinkers,” both on the field and off.
Karras is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his on-field dominance and off-field, well, fame. His flouting of law and authority kept him out of Canton, though I guess nobody told the San Jose Mercury-News.
NFL Films, with Steve Sabol at the helm, produced this feature on Alex Karras as one of the top ten players not in the Hall of Fame. Not only are there several hard-to-find-online clips of Karras’s game footage, but Gayle Sayers weighs in on whether Karras belongs in Canton:
“No. Alex Karras was a dirty football player.”
Watch the footage of the legendary Lions defensive tackle. See the athleticism. See the relentlessness. See him fly to the quarterback regardless of everything else. Hear the lamentations of his opponents about his dirty play. Consider the obvious intellect and humor, and the improbably spectacular array of headline-grabbing off-field exploits.
The day after Karras passed, Ndamukong Suh made headlines after being involved in yet another car accident—and, allegedly, another incident of losing his temper. Suh, I hardly need point out, is famously considered dirty. Famously competitive. Famous for losing a grip on his temper on and off the field.
Less famously, Suh is smart. He’ll discuss his vicious pursuit of quarterbacks with charm and loquaciousness. Talk to Suh for a few minutes, as I have, and you’ll feel he’s got a lot more to give the world than quarterback sacks.
Lions fans across the globe spent a lot of words, appropriately, praising good old Alex Karras this week. With Karras’s violent, vicious, dominant play a memory from another generation, and his post-sports career as lovable TV and film personality wore his famous rough edges smooth.
Lions fans across the globe also spent a lot of words dismissing Ndamukong Suh this week. They’re sick of his antics, sick of his temper, sick of dreading whatever his next crazy, embarrassing mistake will be.
I was sick of going 0-16.
It’s hard to think of pro athletes as human beings. But they are: real, complicated, multifaceted people with neuroses and complexes and contradictions and flaws and hopes and goals and favorites and family. They can be a vicious sonuvabitch on the field, and hug their mother off it. They can scream at people in traffic and donate millions to their alma mater. They can be a brilliant, generous, funloving guys and flip out when maybe your actions have consequences you’d rather not have to deal with.
Don’t let this incident be the last straw for you with Suh, or the Lions. He, and they, are young and talented and have the next few years to fulfill their potential. If, as I’ve implied, Suh could become the next Karras, get a head start now on accepting his flaws, so you can accept his many strengths.