Alex Karras: From Mad Duck to horse puncher

Alex Karras probably was the best football player who ever sucker punched a horse.

Karras, who died last week at the age of 77, starred in the National Football League for 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions. They called him “The Mad Duck” and he was a nightmare for opposing players.

But he was a sportswriter’s dream.

At a press conference prior to a Super Bowl, he delivered a hysterical monologue about the sudden influx of soccer-style placekickers. They were, he dead-panned, tiny little foreigners who ran onto the field shouting, “I gonna keeck a touchdown.”

When I interviewed him shortly before he retired from football in 1970, he was typically funny. But he also showed a serious side when I asked him about the notion that pro athletes should be role models for the youth of America.

“Why should we be role models?” he replied. “We’re grown men. We can smoke cigarettes. We can drink beer.” If the youth of America needed role models, he advised, they should “look to their fathers.”

To his list of the things grown men could do, he might have added “gamble.” In 1963 he was suspended for placing bets.

But even that setback provided fodder for a Karras quip. When he returned the following season and was asked by the referee to call the pre-game coin toss, he reportedly demurred, “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m not permitted to gamble.”

Karras may have made a living hitting quarterbacks and ball carriers, but his biggest hit, literally, came in the 1974 Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles,” in which he played a hulking brute named Mongo, who rides into town on a brahma bull, finds a horse standing in a no parking zone and decks it with a right cross. It was a bit that never would survive the howls of outrage from PETA today, but it was a drop-dead funny scene, rivaled only by the “sitting around the campfire eating beans” routine.

And it led to a host of other movie roles, everything from the husband of golf legend Babe Didrikson Zaharias to a gay bodyguard in “Victor/Victoria.”

To millions who didn’t know the difference between a rotating zone and an erogenous zone, Alex Karras was the television father of “Webster” on a gentle sit-com in the 1980s. The droll guest who sat frequently at the right hand of Johnny Carson.

But I’ll always remember him as a funny, thoughtful man who punched a horse.

The horse, by the way, took a dive and was not injured.

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