The 36-year-old defensive tackle, once called by his coach as “the greatest lineman I’ve ever seen in Detroit,” noticed something unnerving in how that same coach was now behaving whenever the defensive tackle was in his presence.
It was July, 1971 and another grueling football training camp at Cranbrook, the private school off Woodward Avenue in tony Bloomfield Hills. And Alex Karras began noticing something strange about Joe Schmidt, the Lions head coach.
“Whenever Joe would ask me if I still felt like playing, I’d tell him, ‘Yeah, I feel great,’” Karras related in a book he wrote calledEven Big Guys Cry. “But he wouldn’t look me in the eye when he asked me. And when I answered he’d kind of look down and just nod and say, ‘OK.’”
Karras said that Schmidt would ask him the same questions occasionally: How do you feel, Alex? Still think you can go another season?
The exhibition season came and went. Karras played, but not always very well. Sometimes he was pretty good; other times, he was pedestrian. And Karras knew it. He knew when some young whippersnapper guard got the best of him in the pretend games played in August and early-September.
Still, he was Alex Karras. The Lions’ first-round draft pick of 1958, 10th overall out of Iowa. A multiple Pro Bowler, multiple All-NFL—either first or second team. The great Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer, no less, professed his dislike of playing against Karras because Jerry couldn’t block him.
So he was 36 years old, so what? Maybe it just takes longer to get going.
Schmidt and Karras were teammates, even good friends at one point. Schmidt himself played until he was 35.
After the Lions’ final preseason game in 1971, Schmidt delivered the news: Karras was being fired—cut from the Lions after 12 seasons. Schmidt said it was one of the toughest decisions he ever had to make as a coach.
Schmidt explained that Karras’s production and skills were beginning to wane in 1970, when the 10-4 Lions made the playoffs. Karras didn’t agree, but that accounted for why Schmidt acted oddly in training camp, 1971 around the man known as “Tippy Toes” for his bemusing footwork in rushing the passer.
“Alex rushed the passer on mincing steps,” sportswriter Jerry Green once said.
But Schmidt fired Karras, and those mincing steps were on their way out of the NFL.
I can empathize with Joe Schmidt’s dilemma, faced with having to tell a former teammate and friend that his time as a pro football player had ended. Contrary to what you might think, football coaches dread cutting players. For them, they’re the cop in the middle of the night rapping on the door of a victim’s loved one.
I’ll never forget his mother, hugging him tightly in the euphoric locker room inWashington in 1998, the Red Wings having just won a second consecutive Stanley Cup—a Cup that Osgood backstopped all by himself, overcoming one bad goal after another to play steely when it mattered most.
“You did it, Chris! You did it, baby!” his mother shrieked as she clutched her champagne-soaked son.
I’ll never forget the class and dignity he showed when the Red Wings cut him loose in 2001 in the wake of acquiring Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek.
And I’ll damn sure never forget how he rescued the Red Wings in 2008, taking over for the shaky Hasek in the first round of the playoffs and playing brilliantly, leading his team to yet another Stanley Cup.
I’ve written that Chris Osgood’s No. 30 sweater should hang from the rafters at Joe Louis Arena—or wherever the Red Wings end up playing—because of his years of service and multiple Stanley Cups won as starting goalie.
When Osgood struggled last year—his second straight sub-par regular season—I wrote that Osgood was merely sandbagging, and that he may yet be the starting goalie come playoff time, ahead of the rookie Jimmy Howard.
So don’t tell me that I haven’t been in his corner.
Howard has instilled himself as the No. 1 goalie in Detroit, without debate. Not even I, a longtime Osgood supporter, could deny that Howard played his way to first string, fair and square.
Osgood, who will be 38 next month, has accepted his status as permanent backup with his usual class and humility.
But backups still play in the NHL. Rare is the goalie who plays 70+ games nowadays.
Thursday night, Osgood was called upon, the situation rather urgent. Howard had come down with back spasms. The afternoon of the game, Babcock told Ozzie that he’d be between the pipes. It was a time when the backup had to gather himself and be ready at a moment’s notice.
Osgood didn’t appear ready once the puck was dropped.
The game barely 12 minutes old, the Red Wings were trailing, 3-0. The third goal was a seemingly harmless wrist shot from 40 feet out that eluded Osgood, who didn’t so much as touch it.
The Joe Louis Arena crowd shifted restlessly in their seats. Some verbally assaulted Osgood. You’d have thought Rush Limbaugh had just walked into the Democratic National Convention.
The Red Wings tried to come back but lost, 4-2, to the inferior Phoenix Coyotes.
It was yet another mediocre performance brought forth by Osgood, who made some nice saves but who also allowed the kind of goals that hockey people say the goalie “would like to have back.”
The number of goals that Chris Osgood would like to have back are piling up; they have been, going on three seasons now.
It may be time, sooner rather than later, for Mike Babcock and GM Kenny Holland to face that dreaded decision.
How to tell Osgood, a great Red Wing, that his services are no longer needed?
He’s helping to lose games for the team, and has been doing so for quite some time. Osgood, I’m sad to say, is no longer a serviceable NHL goalie.
I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to tell him that to his face.