It’s too bad the best of Greek-American football players over the years couldn’t have been assembled at the same time because they probably would have put up a bigger struggle in Stupor Bowl XLVIII, an expensive bore, than the Denver Broncos, who rolled over and died 12 seconds after kickoff.
From Ohio State All-American Gust Zarnas in 1935, who played offensive guard for the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers and is in the College Football Hall of Fame, to the Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks today, which had safety Gus Maragos, the community has produced a wealth of college and professional football all-stars who would have proved a formidable team.
The National Herald has assembled a list and asks you to pick who your favorite was, a difficult choice given they played over a span of eight decades, during which the game changed so much.
What stayed the same was the arête they possessed, the drive for excellence and virtue and how so many of them embodied the heart of Hellenism and their upbringing and family values.
It’s difficult to choose who was the best because a handful of them showed the kind of talent that comes along so rarely, such as Harry Agganis, The Golden Greek, a two-way All-American at Boston University from 1948-52 – a first round draft choice at quarterback by the Cleveland Browns to replace Otto Graham.
Agganis died at 26 while playing for the Boston Red Sox, and would have been the first real two-sport star. Had he chosen football he would have been paired at Cleveland with running back Jim Brown, still the greatest player the game has ever seen.
But there was Alex Karras, a monster defensive tackle from the University of Iowa who destroyed opponents while playing for the Detroit Lions from 1958-70 – not including a suspension for gambling.
Karras won the Outland Trophy in 1957 as the country’s best defensive lineman in college football and took his pugnacious personality into the pros. He was known as The Mad Duck and popularized as a character in the movie Blazing Saddles for knocking out a horse with a single punch. He died in 2012.
You can add to this team his brothers, Lou, who played for the Washington Redskins from 1950-52 as a defensive tackle until an eye injury ended his career, and Ted, who was the starting guard for the 1963 Chicago Bears NFL champions and also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions.
Karras’only match was fellow defense lineman Fred Smerlas, a five-time All-Pro for the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49’ers and New England Patriots from 1979-92 and perhaps the most feared person in the game during his time on the field, and a championship wrestler as well. Put these two together in the middle of the defense line and runners find another way around.
But there are many others on the TNH All-Time Greek-American Football Team, including:
GENE ROSSIDES: Just before Agganis, Rossides, who played quarterback for Columbia from 1945-48 and engineered still the greatest upset in college football history, stopping Army’s 32-game winning streak in 1947. Rossides became a lawyer, worked for the New York District Attorney’s office and U.S. Treasury and is a champion of Greek and Cypriot causes.
PETE PIHOS: He was a wide receiver and defense end and is in the NFL Hall of Fame for his catching ability. Pihos helped the Philadelphia Eagles win two straight National Football League championships in the 1940’s and was renowned for his fierceness and versatility after an All-American career at the University of Indiana. He was a six-time All-Pro selection and died in 2011 at 87.
ALEX HOLMES: At 6-3, 260 lbs., he played tight end for the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and while he never materialized into a star in the NFL he was a top player at the University of Southern California on top national championship teams. His high school coach in California called him the best player he’d ever had in 30 years. His father, Mike, played for Michigan in the mid-1970s.
Holmes’ younger sister is married to Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. His younger brother Khaled is an offensive lineman at USC. Alex studied Latin and Greek in High School. “My mother is full-blooded Greek, there’s the connection,” he said.
CHRIS FARASOPOULOS: A defensive back for the New York Jets from 1971-73, and the New Orleans Saints the next year, he was born in Piraeus and was known as the “The Galloping Greek” at North Torrance High School in California, Farasopoulos turned down a professional baseball contract with the Baltimore Orioles, choosing instead to accept a full and guaranteed football scholarship from Brigham Young University.
He refused to shorten his name as requested by officials, sticking with his Hellenism. “It is what it is,” he said.
JOE PANOS: He was the captain of Wisconsin’s 1994 Rose Bowl team and played offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills. Panos was born Zois Panagiotopoulos and was known for his aggressive play.
PETROS PAPADAKIS: Now a TV and radio personality and co-host of the Petros and Money Show on Fox Sports Radio, Papadakis scored 16 touchdowns for the University of Southern California from 1999-2000, where his father, Yiannis, and brother, Taso, also played. A tailback, Papadaki’s return from injuries and operations earned him his team’s Most Inspirational Player award and was the team captain.
LONNIE PAXTON: Born Leonidas Paxton (Greek on his father’s side with family from Sparta, he played long snapper for the New England Patriots from 2000-08 and the Denver Broncos from 2009-12.
Paxton snapped on nine of Adam Vinatieri’s game winning field goals over four seasons, including his game-winning 48-yarder at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI. He famously made a snow angel in the end zone after Vinatieri kicked the 23-yard field goal in overtime that gave the Patriots a 16-13 victory over Oakland Raiders which put them in the 2001 AFC championship game.
JOHN KARRAS: Overlooked in the annals of great Greek-American athletes, Karras was known as the Argo Express as a running back, breaking the legendary Red Grange’s records at the University of Illinois in the early 1950’s before playing briefly for the Chicago Cardinals in the NFL. He was a star in the 1952 Rose Bowl win over Stanford and was featured on the cover of TV Guide for his performance. He died in 2008.
TONY PASHOS: Another UIllinois alumni, you can’t miss Tony Pashos, who stands 6-6, 320 pounds as an offensive tackle, and speaks fluent Greek. An All Big-Ten player, he has been with the Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers, and Cleveland Browns.
NIKO KOUTOUVIDES: A linebacker standing 6-2, 244 lbs., he played for Purdue and then was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks and has played for the Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots.
Koutouvides was born in Plainville, Connecticut and attended Plainville High School, where he was a letterman in football. In football, he was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, was an All-Conference selection, and an All-State Honorable Mention selection.
Koutouvides was named first team All-Big Ten by the media and second team by the coaches after starting every game at middle linebacker.
MATT STOVER: A placekicker, Stover, now 43, played for an array of teams in the NFL, including the New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, and Indianapolis Colts and was a two-time Pro Bowl player and on the Ravens Super Bowl winning team. No player has scored more points for a single franchise than Stover has for the Ravens/Browns and set an NFL record with 372 consecutive extra points.
He is of Greek origin and hails from Dallas and played at Louisiana Tech where he was also a punter and often during the kick-off would drill a 60-yarder through the goal posts at the other end.
Stover is in the top 10 in NFL history in every kicking statistic, including 4th in total field goals made. He retired in 2011, the last remaining member of the original Browns and the fourth-leading scorer in NFL history.
There are a number of others who starred in college, such as Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros, who led the Big East in passing in 2010 and now plays for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
Andrew Economos, who played for Georgia Tech is the long snapper for the Tampa Bay Buccanneers. Let us know if we’ve missed someone.