Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Caring, careless, callous, and Karras

I’m going to step away from my annoying-jerk persona for a second and just be annoying. Or maybe just be a jerk. But I’m going to talk straight for a change. If you don’t like it, fine. There are a billion other blogs out there that can fill you up on withering satire and smart-aleck remarks.

Alex Karras is dying. He may be dead by the time I finish this paragraph. His kidneys are failing because his brain is too mixed up to tell his kidneys what to do. Repeated blows to the head over a 14-year NFL career, plus a few-odd wrestling matches, scrambled all the connections and mixed up all the chemicals, and even something as remarkable as the human brain couldn’t sort them out right.

I’ve never been a Detroit Lions fan per se, but I always liked Alex Karras, and if I feel that way I’m sure lots of other people feel that way, too. Karras was smart, funny, a reasonable actor, an underrated sportscaster, the best puncher-of-horses ever, a damn good Hollywood husband, a guaranteed box-office draw on the wrestling circuit, and a hell of a football player.

I’m happy that Jack Butler is in the Hall of Fame. I’m okay with Gene Hickerson being in the Hall of Fame, and getting enshrined when he did before the Alzheimer’s got completely out of control. I’m fine with Tommy McDonald up on the podium in Canton, and Frank Gatski having a statue, and Charlie Trippi, and Doak Walker, and John Henry Johnson, and all the other borderline guys. But dammit, Alex Karras needs one, too.

Let’s look at Alex Karras separated from the emotion of the moment. Karras was a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro during the most concentrated era of football greatness in history. That puts him at roughly the same level as D-linemen like Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, who played on a dynasty and had a mystique working in their favor, way ahead of linebackers like Ray Nitschke and Dave Wilcox, and way, way ahead of modern-day HOFers like Fred Dean and Richard Dent. Pro Football Reference lists him as the 79th-best player of the postwar era, ahead of Huff, Gene Upshaw, Sonny Jurgensen, Night Train Lane, Y.A. Tittle, and sixty-four other Hall of Famers. The only eligible inactives ahead of him are Ken Anderson, Isaiah Robertson, and Jim Marshall.

The man held down the line for some mediocre-to-bad teams and made the guys around him, like Roger Brown and Darris McCord, a whole lot better. Linebackers, too. Especially from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, it was darn hard to be a great linebacker without a great line in front of you. Every HOF linebacker from that era except for Butkus and Wilcox played with a Hall of Famer in the line in front of them.

Make that Butkus, Wilcox, and Joe Schmidt. And Schmidt had Alex Karras. Karras didn’t just make Schmidt better. Guys like Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker and Paul Naumoff cleaned up because Karras was wreaking havoc up front. If you don’t believe me, ask them.

So why isn’t Karras a Hall of Famer? Paper Lion still hurts him, the way Instant Replay still hurts Jerry Kramer. This is a “Christmas Song” line – it’s been said by me many times, many ways -- but the Hornung-Karras gambling suspension fell a whole lot heavier on Karras’ shoulders than it did on Hornung’s. And voters are pretty much done with the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s a little bit of cleanup work to be done, which is why Dick Stanfel is getting a serious look, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame has moved on to take care of Warren Sapp and Junior Seau and their contemporaries before more of them show up dead in their bedrooms.

It’s too late for Alex Karras, really. For him to be elected in the Hall of Fame now would be hollow and Pyrrhic, as ignominious as Ron Santo being elected to Cooperstown the year after his death.[1] It doesn’t matter to him, and it matters little to the people who look at the numbers, consider the record, and remember. Karras was one of the greats, regardless of what anyone in rust-belt Ohio says.

And I’m not quite done. There’s a personal overtone to this. Last week I learned that a friend of mine, a tremendous natural athlete, one of those fireplug guys with 50,000 volts in their hips – well, his brain isn’t sending the right messages to his organs because 15 years of playing hockey and football scrambled all the wires and chemicals in his brain, and they didn’t get put back together right. It’s going to kill him sometime, sooner rather than later. His kids are nice, and they’re real young. They shouldn’t have to see this stuff happen to their dad.

Listen: The NFL and NHL and the CFL and the NCAA and Aussie Rules Football and the international rugby whatever and maybe FIFA too, they need to deal with this head-injury thing now – not five years from now, not when the technology is completely ready, but this second.

Much as I dislike NASCAR, when Dale Earnhardt died of a head injury they did something, and right away. You can say they did the wrong thing or they didn’t do enough or they waited for a tragedy to act, but when they had to act they didn’t push it under the rug or throw a few thousand dollars at it or call for more study. They made the necessary changes to make racing safer.

Much as it pains me to say this, other sports need to follow NASCAR’s lead. We don’t need more Junior Seau suicides. We don’t need the Hall of Fame to be meaningless for an old man because he can’t even remember his name. And for damn sure we don’t need more kids trying to remember what their father was like when he was really their father.

That’s all.

[1] I’m no Ron Santo fan, but really? People connected with the Hall of Fame must have known for 15 years that they were going to elect Santo someday, and then they watched his body parts fall off and his heart fail and did nothing until after he died? By God, if they do that to Alex Karras I’m going to walk to Canton and put someone  in a figure-four deadfall.


  1. In the spirit of "somebody should do something", there is this.

    It's not exactly the NFL taking action. But it's something.