(RNN) – Alex Karras, an accomplished actor and professional football player, has died at the age of 77, according to a family statement.
According to CNN, the family spokesman said Karras passed "after a heroic fight with kidney disease, heart disease, dementia and for the last two years, stomach cancer." Karras died at his home surrounded by family, the spokesman reported.
He was recently given just a few days to live because of complications from kidney failure.
Karras' family said the dementia was a result of a 12-year career in the NFL. He was one of several former players suing the league for negligence to treat and prevent head injuries.
"The entire Detroit Lions family is deeply saddened to learn of the news regarding the condition of one of our all-time greats, Alex Karras," Lions President Tom Lewand said in a team statement released Monday. "Perhaps no player in Lions history attained as much success and notoriety for what he did after his playing days as did Alex."
Karras was as well-known as an actor, perhaps more so, due to a string of memorable individual performances and roles in highly successful films and TV shows.
Karras was cast as George Papadapolis, the adoptive father in Webster. The show, which made a star of Emmanuel Lewis, had a six-year run and featured Karras as a retired pro football player who adopted the orphaned son of a former teammate.
Karras' widow, Susan Clark, also played his wife on the show and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role.
Karras famously played "Mongo" in the 1974 movie Blazing Saddles. The character punched out a horse after its rider told Mongo he couldn't hitch his bull - the one he rode in on - to a post.
He began his acting career playing himself in Paper Lion, a 1968 film based on sportswriter George Plimpton's book chronicling his tryout as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
Before he was featured on screen, Karras was a four-time Pro Bowl player at defensive tackle. He was a member of the Detroit Lions defensive line that earned the nickname Fearsome Foursome. He missed the 1963 season because of a suspension for gambling on NFL games and spent some time that year as a professional wrestler.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame still recognized Karras as a defensive tackle on the All-Decade Team of the 1960s. He retired in 1970 at age 35.
He later joined Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford in the broadcast booth for Monday Night Football.
Clark joined her late husband in filing suit against the NFL earlier this year in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. He was the lead plaintiff in a suit that included 69 other former players. The lawsuit claims the league did not do enough to warn players about the risks associated with playing too soon after suffering a concussion.
Clark said her husband still enjoyed watching football, but he was not able to do some of his other favorite activities.
"Dementia prevents him from doing everyday activities such as driving, cooking, sports fishing, reading books and going to big events or traveling," Clark stated. "His constant complaint is dizziness - the result of multiple concussions. What Alex wants is for the game of football to be made safer and allow players and their families to enjoy a healthier, happier retirement."
The two have been partners in almost everything since they first met. Clark played one of the most famous female athletes of all time, Mildred "Babe" Didrickson Zaharias, in the TV movie Babe, and Karras was cast as George Zaharias.
The couple has been married since 1980, had one child named Kate and ran a production company that produced multiple projects, including Webster.
Karras was previously married to Joan Jurgenson from 1958 through 1975, and the couple had five children together before they divorced.
Alexander George Karras was born in Gary, IN, on July 15, 1935, the son of a Greek father and Canadian mother. His two older brothers, Lou and Ted, also played in the NFL.
Karras was a four-time all-state high school football player, a sport he began to excel at after the death of his father. He went on to play for the University of Iowa, where he was a consensus All-American and runner-up in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1957. Karras was one of just three linemen to ever finish that high in the Heisman voting. He also won the Outland Trophy that year, given annually to the best interior lineman in college.
His success as a college player came despite some memorable obstacles. Karras struggled with his grades – a likely result of attention deficit disorder that was not diagnosed early – and he either left or was kicked off the team multiple times. Karras had several run-ins with Iowa coach Forest Evashevski and reportedly threw a shoe at him before quitting the team the first time.
Karras told Sports Illustrated in 2008 that he decided to call Evashevski, then 90 years old, to apologize for his behavior.
"I couldn't take it anymore," Karras says. "I had to call him."
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