Friday, January 12, 2024

Quote of the Day (George Plimpton on Alex Karras, With the NFL Great Displaying ‘Theatrical Tendencies’)

“When Alex Karras came onto the club, after his own rookie year, during which he barely spoke a word, he became the unofficial hazing master. But he used the dining room less as a hazing ground than as a stage to display his own theatrical tendencies. He banged the water glass for silence so he could deliver his own speeches, skits, or monologues; even a request for chocolate syrup for his ice cream, which could have been fulfilled by raising a finger to a passing waitress, was given a performance. He would rap his water glass loudly and signal out the dining-room matron. ‘Mrs. Page!’ he would shout. ‘Mrs. Page, having consumed a salad, your salad, with a little shrimp in it, is it too much for me to ask, as a red-blooded American, a voter, with a wife back home, a dog lying by the hearth, a parakeet in a wire cage, is it too much for me to ask for a beaker of chocolate syrup to pour on my ice cream? Mrs. Page, give me chocolate syrup or give me death!’" — American “participatory journalist,” literary editor, actor and occasional amateur sportsman George Plimpton (1927-2003), Paper Lion: Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback (1965)

This weekend, the Detroit Lions are in territory sadly unfamiliar to them in recent years: the playoffs, hosting the Los Angeles Rams. The last time they got even to the wild-card round was in January 2017, and their last playoff victory came in January 1992 over the Dallas Cowboys. Their last outright championship was back in 1957.

Or, to put it another way: diehards born in that golden year are now getting ready to retire, if they haven’t already.

Even with a 12-5 record in this past regular season that put them atop the NFC North division, any belief that the team will go much further after this point represents, for pessimists eyeing their prior playoff history, what Oscar Wilde defined as a second marriage: “the triumph of hope over experience.”

Yet that same dismal history makes them a sentimental favorite to go to the Super Bowl, and some even glimpse potential for such a run.

For instance, this post from SportsGrid, a sports betting site for news, analysis, and advice, even has labeled the team “the potential surprise package of the season…. a testament to the unpredictability and thrill of the NFL, where any team can defy the odds and emerge victorious.”

Somewhere in the afterlife, George Plimpton is smiling. In an October 2022 post, I blogged about his penchant for writing about unusual stunts. Perhaps the most famous of these was participating, as a lanky 36-year-old, in preseason training back in 1963 for the Lions, then calling plays in an intra-team scrimmage.

It went about as well as can be expected: disastrously. But at least he came out with a bestseller that got turned into a 1968 movie, starring Alan Alda as the writer.

One of the great characters among the Lion players was Alex Karras, the near-sighted but terrifying defensive lineman, suspended in the 1963 season for betting on NFL games. Accordingly, Karras’ appearances in the book are brief but memorable.

God knows, with what Plimpton called the player’s “untrammeled brain,” I still had material: his offhand remark to the author that “there’s only one man I never really liked at all: Will Rogers,” or his hilarious speculative monologues to teammates about his past fictional lives as aides-de-camp to George Washington and Adolf Hitler.

But the one I selected, I think, provides evidence, early in Plimpton’s account, of this gridiron great’s post-football future before the cameras. Karras was clearly miserable that his suspension kept him away from the game he loved so much, and his off-field activities during that season (wrestling and owning a bar) did little to salve his feelings.

But here, among his teammates in the team dining room, he was demonstrating the ease with performing that would lead him, after he hung up his helmet, into sportscasting and acting. 

As an actor, Karras started by playing himself (based on his monologues, he could have done it better?) in the movie Paper Lion, and later, more conspicuously, on the long-running sitcom Webster and, most memorably, in the film comedies Victor Victoria and Blazing Saddles. (In the latter, who could have been more credible as Mongo punching a horse?)

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