I just happened to see a web page report that Detroit Lions and later TV star Alex Karras has died. I associate Karras, the Lions' all-pro defensive lineman in the1960s, with one of my best childhood reading experiences, George Plimpton's "Paper Lion."
My parents subscribed for a time to the Book of the Month Club, and one of the hardbacks that arrived in a form fitted cardboard box was Plimpton's account of trying out for quarterback with the Lions. The zany Karras, who took to playing made up comic Nazi characters to ward off training camp boredom, was a star of the book, one of the first hits in the emerging literary sports-book genre. I can still remember the book's dust jacket, with a photo of the shaggy-haired Plimpton in his Lions uniform, No. 0, as I recall. Plimpton discussed his humiliation at trying to play quarterback for the Lions, who good naturedly accepted him, finishing with an account of his actual appearance in an exhibition game. The book was one of the first "New Journalism" works I read and remains one of the best.
Karras later starred in the movie version of the book, launching him on his acting career highlighted by the TV show "Webster." In the show, he and his TV wife adopted a black kid. I have a few impressions of the show, including that I had a mini-crush on the woman who played his TV wife.
I also knew Karras from my father's subscription to Sports Illustrated; he along with the Packers' Paul Hornung was suspended for a year by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for gambling ties. That was one of the big sports stories of the early '60s. I also recall Karras from another memorable childhood experience, watching on Thanksgiving Day as the Lions upset the undefeated Packers, totally dominating the Pack in one of the most amazing sporting events of my youth. Back then, the NFL always delivered unexpected excitement.
The Packers went on to finish that season with only one loss. I don't remember if they played in the first Super Bowl that year, or whether that came later, and just winning the NFL championship was the thing. While I liked the Packers, the Bears and other NFL teams, I really loved the AFL, to me the most exciting football ever played.
When I was a kid reading Plimpton's account of trying out for the Lions, little did I know that Plimpton was the Paris Review's editor, and that I would later have a lifelong adult readership of the journal. At several times in my life, beginning in my college days, I have subscribed to the PR, and have continued reading it ever since. I've read many memoirs about Plimpton's New York and Paris literary days, but my favorite memory of him will always be as the New York writer seeking to play quarterback for the Lions. Farewell, Alex, who came to life in Plimpton's book, a great literary character as well as a great player and a fine comic actor.