Alex Karras, RIP: The passing of a true gladiator

The death of Alex Karras on Wednesday, just weeks after that of NFL Films impresario Steve Sabol, has those nostalgiac for the days of pro football’s past reflecting even more deeply on the state of the game as it is now.

ESPN.com’s Jeff MacGregor continues his exploration of the nature of football while remembering the legacy of Karras, known better to younger generations of Americans as a “Monday Night Football” analyst, Mongo from “Blazing Saddles” movie fame and a television personality. At least his ferocious persona as a Detroit Lions’ defensive lineman — a good one, but not a truly great one — was nothing but authentic, during a time when that was all that mattered:

“The NFL has long since been streamlined and sanitized. The game itself is faster and bigger and stronger and more brutal than ever, but the aesthetic now is sleek and frictionless, corporate, artificial, no sleeves on the jerseys or mud on the fields. Somehow there’s more of it amounting to less and less. I understand this has as much to do with me growing old as it does with the game or the league.

“But as a matter of ticket sales and public relations, the NFL tries now to hide its violence. This is dishonest. Football is the last Great Circus and the last of our epic American fables.”

Picture 4MacGregor gently takes issue with Kansas City Chiefs’ lineman Eric Winston’s insistence last week that football players aren’t gladiators, in the true Roman sense. Winston was irate, and understandably so, that his team’s fans cheered as struggling quarterback Matt Cassel was carted off the field on Sunday.

With the constant news of concussions and on-field violence all around them, Winston and his fellow football professionals are stuck in an increasingly hysterical morality play in which their own humanity is an afterthought. The most popular spectator sport in America is becoming a crucible in which vast sums of money, enormous television ratings, bounty-hunting, concern over medical ethics and an aversion to acknowledging the sport’s undeniably violent roots are making it difficult to have an honest discussion about what’s at stake, and what can be done.

While Karras and his generation of players accepted the game as it was, they anguished about the consequences in their later years.

George Plimpton’s 1966 book, “Paper Lion” later became a film in which Karras played himself, and launched his acting career. Though Plimpton’s Walter Mitty-like experience with an NFL team was the core of the story, what also couldn’t be denied was the brutal toll the game took even on its most rock-ribbed participants.

Karras, who was 77, had been diagnosed with dementia brought about by head injuries sustained during his playing days. The cause of death was kidney failure.

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