The greatest defensive tackle in Lions history had a nose for the quarterback. He had to, because he couldn’t see the passer.
Alex Karras, the Golden Greek (aka Tippy Toes), had the eyesight of Mr. Magoo but the olfactory nerves of a shark in blood-tinged waters
Karras was a wrestler at the University of Iowa, and he used that experience to break free of pass protectors through the use of agility and leverage.
Amazingly, it was Karras who initially feared for his own safety.
“I learned at a very young age,” Karras once told NFL Films, “that if I ever lined up to do battle…that I could get hurt!”
Karras joined the Lions in 1958 as a rookie from Iowa, when the Lions were defending league champs. Needless to say, no other rookie has joined the team under those circumstances since then.
He came into the NFL with Wayne Walker, the linebacker from Idaho. Together they were part of some very good defenses in Detroit, often when the offense was nowhere nearly as competent.
But that was the NFL, circa the mid-to-late 1950s through most of the 1960s: The league was filled with gritty, nasty defenders who rarely made a tackle below the jaw line. Helmets of the so-called “skill” players popped off like champagne corks on New Year’s Eve, in those days.
Occasionally, the player’s teammates would check to make sure the head wasn’t still inside.
This was the NFL of the day—the polar opposite of the upstart American Football League, whose game scores looked more like college basketball tilts than those of pro football.
The AFL had the Mad Bomber—Oakland QB Daryle Lamonica. The NFL had the Mad Stork—linebacker Ted Hendricks.
The Lions could play some defense, especially in the trenches, where Karras was joined in crime by partners Darris McCord, Sam Williams and Roger Brown. Behind them was middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, the pride of Pitt.
Then the Lions added Lem Barney to the secondary, which already included Dick LeBeau and Bruce Maher.
Too bad the offenses were often plodding units who needed a month of Sundays to score 50 points.
Karras was the ring leader, make no mistake. Alex adored the spotlight and the attention. He walked around training camp at Cranbrook wearing horn-rimmed glasses, plaid shorts and smoking a cigar.
“Alex was two different people,” longtime Chicago Bears center Mike Pyle told Ed Sabol’s folks at NFL Films. “On the field, he wanted to destroy anyone wearing the opposing uniform. But off the field, just a really nice guy.”
Karras played in the days when television was just starting to sink its claws into pro football. He once told me that the classic Thanksgiving Day game in 1962, when the Lions tore Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr limb from limb, was special to him because it was one of the first games Karras had played on national TV.
“You started to play the game for television in those days,” Karras told me.
Karras liked TV so much, he found a second career in it.
Some might argue against my opening sentence, refusing to believe that Karras was better than today’s Lions brute, Ndamukong Suh, even though Suh has played just one season in the NFL.
Sorry, but never can a man of one year’s experience be considered the best of anything.
However, I may be stupid, but I’m not foolish enough to tell that to Suh’s face.
Clearly, Suh has the potential to best Karras as the Lions best-ever defensive tackle. Granted, that might even happen this season. But it’s too soon to declare Suh the best—for now.
The Lions have themselves, in Suh, a weapon of mass destruction. Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham ought to come to work handcuffed to a briefcase, inside of which holds the keys that are simultaneously inserted to turn Suh on.
The destructive powers of Suh, once unleashed, are irrevocable.
That is why the Lions should dismiss the fine that Suh received after his throwdown of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, which occurred early in last Friday’s exhibition opener.
The NFL nicked Suh for $20,000. But it’s not the money that has coach Jim Schwartz, GM Marty Mayhew and the Lions fan base worried.
It’s the reputation.
Suh, after just one season and one exhibition game, is smack in the middle of the NFL’s radar. He wears Honolulu Blue to us, but to the powers that be in the league offices, Suh wears a black hat. The fines started early last year, too—also in the preseason. And they never really stopped.
It’s troubling that Suh gets an inordinate amount of attention from the disciplinarians for his wont to cause mayhem. It’s not his fault that he has the strength to throw people around like rag dolls. Suh’s tackles just look worse than those of other, mortal men.
Helmets tend to fly off and arms and legs get splayed around, when Suh gets his mitts on a ball carrier.
But the Lions ought not to worry about the fines so much that they try to reel Suh in. He’s too good, too powerful, too dynamic to try to suppress.
Suh is the most dominating force the Lions have employed in years. Even Big Baby, Shaun Rogers, wasn’t this good in his heyday. Neither was Jerry Ball or Doug English or Al “Bubba” Baker.
Karras was, but Alex isn’t likely to hold his place as Best Ever Lions Defensive Tackle, for much longer.
The two of them—Alex Karras and Ndamukong Suh—have something else in common: both got themselves into hot water with the NFL; Karras for his gambling, Suh for his sadism.
“In pro football,” Karras told NFL Films, “you line up every Sunday to play the game of battle.”
Here’s Suh, speaking to the Free Press last week: “I’m not going to stop playing hard. Like I said before … I owe it to my teammates, I owe it to the coaches, and I owe it to the fans first and foremost. That’s the reason why they watch the game. It’s one of the reasons football is football, cause it’s physical contract, aggression that is made exciting.”
Karras and Suh—two defensive greats whose careers began over 50 years apart. Yet they sound like they could have been terrific teammates, in any era.