Why Isn't Alex Karras in the NFL Hall of Fame?

Αssociated Press

Alex Karras. (Photo: Associated Press, FILE)

One of the most feared and ferocious players in National Football League history, the late Detriot Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras isn't in the Hall of Fame – likely kept out because of a suspension for gambling, but as other players with more checkered and violent histories are in.

They, however, didn't stand up to an NFL Commissioner like Karras, the ex-Iowa great who was featured in George Plimpton's book about the game, Paper Lion, did when he wouldn't back to down to Pete Rozelle, refusing to be repentant for gambling on games, his disdain for authority showing throughout his career.

When he died in 2012 after suffering multiple illnesses and dementia, the New York Times put it this way: “Karras was an especially versatile pass rusher, known around the league for his combination of strength, speed and caginess. His furious approach — Plimpton described it as a “savage, bustling style of attack,” earned him the moniker The Mad Duck.

Undersized even in the 1950's and 1960's at 6-2 and 250 lbs for a defensive lineman, Karras made up for it with an unbridled menacing style of all-out play, stalking quarterbacks he derided as “milk drinkers,” and making even the toughest running backs look for an exit.

Seeing lesser players who couldn't wear Karras' undergarments enshrined among the game's greatest, Detroit Free Press sportswriter Carlos Monarrez made the case for him to finally be admitted, writing: “Enough is enough. It’s time for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to make things right and induct one of the NFL’s all-time best defensive tackles: the late, great Alex Karras, who played for the Detroit Lions from 1958-70.”

It came to mind, he said, as he watched Ray Lewis and Randy Moss, of dubious character, getting in, with Karras' one-year suspension in 1963 – along with Green Bay Packers running great Paul Hornung – one opponent he couldn't knock down.

In today's game, where every move is a statistic, the modern players are touting math as a symbol of their greatness: how many sacks, how many yards, how many passes caught. With few defensive statistics when he played, there was no way to really calculate Karras' greatness. Ask anyone across the line from him, gulping in fear at what was going to be coming at him.

Karras was named to the Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s — by the entire Hall of Fame Selection Committee. “Seriously. This charade has gone on long enough,” Monarrez wrote. He said he spoke with many of Karras' contemporaries and that, “Whenever his name comes up, they all agree there’s no question he was one of the most dominant players of his time who absolutely deserves to be enshrined.”

Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka, a fellow wrecking machine with an equally menacing scowl and ferocity said of Karras, who he had lined up against many times, that, “He was thought of, at the time, as the best defensive lineman in football. I know there was (Gene) Big Daddy Lipscomb. There were a lot of guys. But he was the best.”

It’s unclear exactly what has kept Karras out of the Hall of Fame. The selection committee is only supposed to judge players by what they do on the field, and nothing more, Monarrez wrote, but there's no accounting for what they're thinking and if Karras' don't-give-a-damn attitude is registering in why they don't vote for him.

It may be because the extent of his gambling remains unsure and that for a time he was part owner of Detroit’s iconic Lindell AC bar, until Rozelle ordered him to sell his share, long before, as is on the horizon now, that gambling on games is legal in some states and the Oakland Raiders planning to move to Las Vegas, the American gambling mecca.

Monarrez noted that Hornung is in the Hall of Fame but Karras isn't and it's probably because Karras wouldn't apologize and openly said he didn't like the Commissioner. “But the fact the gambling happened away from the field, that Karras was never proved to have bet on Lions games, and that he was reinstated should make him eligible for the Hall of Fame,” he wrote.

The only way for Karras to be elected to the Hall of Fame is through a complicated process that involves the Hall’s Seniors Committee. That’s a group of nine veteran members who are also part of the 48 journalists on the regular Selection Committee.

Ditka said it's time for people holding back on Karras to get over it. "That was a long time ago, and it had no reflection on how he played the game. He's a Hall of Fame football player, believe me." When he was reinstated in 1964, Karras once refused when an official asked him to call the pregame coin toss. "I'm sorry, sir," Karras replied. "I'm not permitted to gamble." That's why.