The headline on Yahoo reads: “Former ‘Webster’ Co-Star Dies.” If that’s how we remember Alex Karras, then a sad day just got a lot sadder. There was so much more to Karras than his role as just another befuddled sitcom dad to an adorable minority child. He packed an enviable amount of living into his 77 years until his death this morning from kidney failure.
An ornery defensive lineman at Iowa, Karras earned the 1957 Outland Trophy as the nation’s top lineman to cap a distinguished college career that landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame but was marred by continuing clashes with his coach, Forest Evashevski. After a stint as a professional wrestler, Karras embarked on a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions that was interrupted by a suspension for the 1963 season for betting on NFL games — which he used as an opportunity to return to the ring before his reinstatement for the 1964 season. Karras was a four-time Pro Bowler and was a member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. He intercepted four passes in his career, a remarkable number for a defensive tackle.
His outsize personality naturally led him to the broadcast booth, where he served as Monday Night Football color analyst from 1973 to 1976. But it was his role as dim-witted villain Mongo in Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic western spoof Blazing Saddles that propelled him into his next career as a thespian, including his role in Webster, which ran for six seasons but lived on in syndication until the late 1990s.
Karras even dabbled in the book business, penning two memoirs and a novel and inspiring key passages of Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s famous chronicle of his time in Lions training camp. Karras later played himself in the 1968 movie adaptation, a part for which he was uniquely suited and which provided an early showcase for his on-camera appeal.
Late in his life, he took on his most unwelcome role, as a symbol of the ravages on body and brain that a career in football can inflict. Suffering from dementia (as well as heart disease and cancer), Karras served as a lead plaintiff in a concussion-related suit brought by hundreds of NFL players.
Mongo may only be a pawn in game of life, but Alex Karras was much, much more. RIP.
— Rob Doster is senior editor for Athlon Sports.