A 'Mad Duck' in Spencer

Saturday, October 13, 2012
(left to right) Toby Shine, Alex Karras, and Frank Hart at the Spencer Airport when Karras returned to town to speak to the Spencer Jaycees. (Photo submitted)

Former NFL, television and movie star hides out in Iowa

Alex Karras, known as the "Mad Duck" in football and "Al" in his family, left a legacy that extends not only into the National Football League, but also through the movie and television screens in Hollywood. Karras began his career with a short stint in professional wrestling before drafting into the Detroit Lions, where he quickly became one of the more prominent defensive tackles in the entire league.

After 12 years, Karras moved on to acting, landing roles such as Mongo in the Mel Brooks parody "Blazing Saddles," and Sheriff Wallace in "Porky's." His television appearances included guest roles on "M*A*S*H", a brief run on "Match Game '75," "The Odd Couple" and "Webster," where he played the title character's adoptive father, George Papadapolis.

But before all of the lights, cameras and action, Karras was a high school all-state football player for Gary Emerson High School in Gary, Ind. He was 17 years old and considering college ball. At the time, his brothers played for different schools: Lou was at Purdue University and Theodore was at Indiana University.

Indiana wanted him, and while they had the advantage of another Karras on their roster, they weren't the only school with tricks up their sleeve.

A rumor around Spencer is that Karras came to visit one summer, smuggled in by Hawkeye coaches to keep him away from the other recruiters.

"It's the story I've always heard," Bob Rose, executive director of Spencer Main Street Company, said. "How much is true, I'm not sure."

Even Steve Roe, director of athletic communications for the University of Iowa, didn't have any documentation from the former coaches of the trip.

"As far as I know, it's all speculation," Roe said.

Karras himself described the summer in his 1978 memoir, "Even Big Guys Cry."

"It might as well have been in Colorado, because Louie never mentioned the state I was flying to," Karras wrote. "Neither did the Iowa coaches or the pilot. The only thing they told me was that I'd be staying with a Jewish couple by the name of Shine, who lived in a town called Spencer. They would put me up in their home for the summer."

Toby Shine, president of Shine Bros. Corp., was just 10 years old when Karras came to spend a summer with his family.

"The object was they were trying to hide him," Shine said.

Shine's father had a connection with the University of Iowa, but it was Karras' brother, Louie, who convinced him to go to Iowa.

"When I got to Spencer, I discovered that Mr. Shine owned a junkyard in town," Karras wrote. "He also raised sheep. His barn was always filled with wool. He said that he had made a lot of money in the wool business, but I never did find out what he did with all that junk."

That summer, between Karras' high school and college football careers, Shine said he "fit right in" to their family.

"He was just another kid in town," he said. "A big kid."

Karras adjusted quickly from the city into the small-town lifestyle, and enjoyed fishing and swimming up at the lakes.

"(Mr. Shine) and Mrs. Shine were lovable people," Karras wrote. "They treated me just like a son."

Karras returned to visit several times, once even to speak to the Jaycees.

Karras went on to great success in the game, a skill Shine recognized in the short time they spent together. But he never forgot his summer in town.

"My mother and he were great friends," Shine said, smiling.

Karras married Joan Jurgensen in 1958 and had five children. After their divorce in 1975, he married Susan Clark in 1980, with whom he had one daughter.

After several health problems, Karras died of kidney failure at his Los Angeles home on October 10, 2012.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: