It is fitting that I am sitting down to write this only moments after my Detroit Tigers heinously blew a lead in the bottom of the 9th to the Oakland A’s and possibly cost themselves their playoff series because the only thing I have on my mind at the moment is death and terrible things, just terrible, and in the heat of this madness I . . .
You know what? To hell with all that. This isn’t about death. No. This is about a celebration of life, of a life so thunderous that right at this moment there are great men cowering in Valhalla, wondering what in the hell just crashed against their walls. “Jesus Christ, it’s Mongo . . .” one of them just said and then ducked behind a bar because you’re goddamn right that’s Mongo and he’s fuckin’ thirsty.
I hate it when famous people die. Not because they die and it’s sad and blah blah blah but because everyone falls all over themselves to be the first to tweet RIP or talk about how sad they are and it always comes across as perfunctory gibberish, the sort of thing that I find distasteful and self-aggrandizing in the worst way, heinous braying that fills the silence that the void that is their brain fears so, so much. And so when I see RIP Alex Karras it doesn’t mean a whole lot. People would write RIP Carrot Top if they thought people would see it and then fake cry with them. Fuck all that. And fuck all that because, in this case it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough. Alex Karras deserves more than that, more than your simpering worship of the public spectacle of faux grieving. He deserves more than any of you can give. He deserves more than I can give. But all I have is this and so here goes.
“Alexander George "Alex" Karras (July 15, 1935 – October 10, 2012), nicknamed "The Mad Duck", was an American football player, professional wrestler, and actor.”
That is the opening line to Alex Karras’ Wikipedia profile and goddammit, now that’s a man who lived a life. Any time you earn the nickname that begins with the phrase “The Mad” you’ve done something either incredibly right or something terribly, terribly wrong. You have stomped on the earth and left a footprint that terrifies mortal men to the point that when they speak of you, they whisper and tremble like faithless men, speaking of madness because men fear and label an energy so potent that they can’t express it as anything other than madness. A T-Rex is madness to them. A grizzly bear tearing through their homes and then their intestines is madness to them. A fucking wild man punching out a horse and beating the holy hell out of simpering quarterbacks is madness to them. Alex Karras is madness. And goddammit, I’m sad that he has taken that madness and departed from our realm.
Most people probably know Alex Karras best as an actor. Actually, most people probably know Alex Karras best for punching out a fucking horse, for being Mongo and everything that means. All by itself that’s a hell of a legacy. But Alex Karras was much more than that. Back in his day, Alex Karras was a goddamn animal on the football field, a wild man who was basically the prototype for Ndamukong Suh. He was a disruptive force for the Lions for over a decade and was named to the NFL’s all decade team for the 1960’s. The man could fucking play.
He was an All-Pro and yes, he was Mongo, but in between he lived the life of a true Spirit Warrior. If ACLB had a Hall of Fame, Mongo would be a first ballot shoe-in alongside dudes like Ken Stabler, John Riggins and Jack Tatum. Before he even played a down in the NFL, knowing full well that he was going to make a bunch of money playing football, Karras said the hell with it and decided to become a pro-wrestler. Now this was back in the days when that meant something. Back then, pro wrestlers would get their eyeballs popped out of their head, laugh about it, then smoke some cigars and get in a bar fight with angry fans. And Alex Karras did this because why the fuck not? That’s the type of man he was. He was Mongo from birth to death and everything in between.
In his early days with the Lions he was Bobby Layne’s partner in crime. Now in case you don’t know, Bobby Layne was sort of the proto-Stabler, a drunken degenerate from Texas who constantly got himself in all kinds of shit. But he had Alex Karras there to back him up, and Karras did. Not many men can walk the fire with someone like Bobby Layne but Mongo did and that says a hell of a lot about the dude right there. Seriously, I can just picture Bobby Layne and Alex Karras strolling into a bar in some shitkicker town and getting shitfaced drunk while a bunch of rednecks sit around thinking up ways to beat them down. And I can picture Bobby Layne being a cocky asshole, talking shit and getting everyone all riled up and I can picture Alex Karras beating some redneck ass, half-drunk while Bobby cackles and tries to fuck all their girlfriends. It’s a perfect picture, a legendary picture and I cherish it.
Look, I kind of wanted to write an eloquent farewell here but it’s not really going like I planned. Instead, this is rough and vaguely offensive, full of cursing, spit and the sort of thing you won’t find in a New York Times obituary but you know what? That’s kind of appropriate. Everyone tries to whitewash the world when someone dies and people smile and genuflect before an altar of good taste but real life, or at least a life lived well, is grimy and rude and filled with violence and the thunderous echoes of a heart that beats not for posterity but for a Truth that can only be found through living and goddammit, Alex Karras lived.
In 1963 Karras was suspended by that era’s version of Sheriff Goodell for betting on football, and more specifically for betting on football at a sports bar that he owned. When they initially cracked down on him they tried to get him to sell the place but rather than sell his bar, rather than sell a piece of himself just to placate their need for control he told them to fuck off and threatened to retire. When they suspended him for an entire year he didn’t whine, he didn’t beg them for forgiveness or for reinstatement. Instead he took the year and went and wrestled. Naturally. Exiled, he spent that year fighting dudes like Dick the Bruiser while colorless wretches played football for their power-mad masters. When he did return, it was under his own terms. In one of his first games back, the ref asked him to call the pregame coin toss and Karras, like a boss told the dude “I’m sorry sir, I’m not permitted to gamble.”
After that, Karras developed a reputation for being sort of a pain in the ass, and why wouldn’t he? The league he killed himself for, the brutal sport that was stealing parts of his brain, had already shown that it would banish him if he didn’t bow down and worship and suckle at the teats of the millionaire assholes who ran the whole damn thing (Sound familiar?). He feuded with his coaches and eventually used the threat of jumping to the AFL to leverage a seven year deal for himself. But every time a coach feuded with Karras it was the coach who was sent packing. Bot George Wilson and Harry Gilmer tried to tame Mongo and both were told to get the hell out of town. Eventually, Karras finished his career with his old friend and teammate Chuck Schmidt as the head coach. People will knock Karras for this, call him a coach killer and all that, but the truth is that Alex Karras was a Spirit Warrior and people don’t understand how to deal with Spirit Warriors. Spirit Warriors only respect other Spirit Warriors and Alex Karras could only thrive so long as a fellow Spirit Warrior like Chuck Schmidt was the man in charge. Those other dudes tried to control Karras, tried to mold him, tried to make him theirs but you can’t own a Spirit Warrior. You can’t tame a force of nature and Alex Karras was a force of nature.
After suffering a knee injury, Karras retired and turned his attention to Hollywood. He caught the eye of Mel Brooks and pretty soon he was farting around a campfire and punching out horses in Blazing Saddles. During the same time, he did commentary for Monday Night Football. Not everybody knows this but Karras is actually the one who came up with Otis Sistrunk’s infamous “University of Mars.” Sistrunk never played college football and so Karras joked that he played for “The University of Mars.” It stuck and became part of Sistrunk’s legend, but it really belonged to Karras.
A few years later he popped up as the redneck sheriff in Porky’s, likely drawing on personal experience dealing with redneck sheriffs and even played a closeted gay bodyguard named “Squash” in Victor, Victoria. And he did this because he was a goddamn man and he didn’t give a shit if people made gay jokes. He was Alex Karras. He was Mongo. He was a Spirit Warrior, a force of nature and forces of nature are pansexual.
Okay, I am getting a little carried away here but I can’t help it. Alex Karras had more life inside of him than an entire city’s worth of people. He lived because he could do nothing less. He was a giant, a huge man both literally and figuratively. He punched out a fucking horse and people laughed and believed he could do that because he was Alex Karras. He played a gay dude back when people treated gay dudes like dog fuckers or something and nobody said shit because, again, he was Alex Karras.
He then cruised through middle-age with a cushy gig playing the adoptive father of Webster, which is kind of fucking weird when you think about it but again, he was Alex Karras. By the way, his hot wife on the show, Susan Clark, was also his wife in real life. I’m not sure whether he also adopted a midget in real life before selling him to Michael Jackson but let’s not speculate about such ugly things, okay?
Famous people die every day. Athletes are everywhere. People worship them, people fetishize them and at the end of the day they usually turn out to be just like everyone else, living quiet lives, boring lives, soulless lives and hey, that’s fine. There is an easiness to that sort of life that I won’t begrudge anybody. But some people are meant for more than that. Some people have no choice but to live. Everything and everyone they touch is affected by them. They don’t try to be like that, they just are. Crazy shit happens to them, monumental shit happens to them, and it happens to them because they don’t live in the moment, the moment lives in them. They are the moment. They are what everyone else stands around and watches. They make the world go while everyone else just spins around on it, day after day, year after year. They seem like they are always in the middle of the wild roar that is a well-lived life because they are the one’s generating that wild roar. It comes from their soul, from that unfathomable place that most men hide from. They are the rare beasts, prototypes, one in a million. Alex Karras was of this tribe, this Spirit Warrior tribe, and everyone who ever knew him, who ever watched him, followed him, knows that this is true. It’s why Bobby Layne, himself a Spirit Warrior and human hurricane, picked Karras out of the crowd and took him under his wing. As they say, real recognizes real.
George Plimpton is famous for being both a huge dork and for writing Paper Lion, his behind the scenes look at being an NFL player. While he was writing this and hanging around with the Detroit Lions, he knew and had access to the entire team. Out of all the players, out of all the giant personalities which make up an NFL locker room Plimpton gravitated towards Alex Karras. Karras’ presence was so strong, so immediate, so compelling that Plimpton couldn’t stop writing about him. His 1973 book Mad Ducks and Bears was about Karras. He simply could not be ignored. His presence commanded attention, it caused a great writer to become almost obsessed with him, to chase after him, after that wild Spirit Warrior personality, like Ahab chasing his whale.
Alex Karras was a wild man, a wild heart, an untamable heart. He threw himself wholly, body, mind and soul against the great rocky fortress of the unknown, crashing headlong into that place where most men fear to tread. He broke down the walls of that fortress and he roared and the universe heard him. Eventually that universe made him pay for making it listen to him, for making it know him, the way it does to all who stand up before it and force it to pay attention. It ripped away his mind and his body. It gave him dementia and heart disease and cancer before it finally shut his kidneys down. Most men hide from the universe and try to live forever and in doing so they crumble into nothingness. The universe never knows them and so they are as they were – nothing. But the universe knew Alex Karras. It knew him and it burned him alive. Its heat scorched him but in doing so it left an imprint on the rest of the world that will never fade away. It will always be there for all to see and as long as the universe lives on, Alex Karras will be there, in its heart, in its memory, and the universe will remember because he made it remember. He is the Mad Duck, he is Mongo, he is Bobby Layne’s drinking buddy, he is a pro wrestler, he is Webster’s father, he is an All-Pro defensive lineman, he is George Plimpton’s muse, he is a Detroit Lion, he is Alex Karras. Forever.