By Jim Moyes
Local Sports Journal
The passing of Detroit Lions gridiron legend Alex Karras this past October conjured up my own memories from a couple of personal moments long ago spent with the late football and movie star.
Muskegon old timers may recall when the future ‘Webster’ of Blazing Saddles fame was in Muskegon years ago as a high school football player for Gary, (Ind.) Emerson High School.
Muskegon had left the Southwestern Conference the previous season, forcing the Big Reds to seek out-of-state opponents to fill their schedule. Emerson, along with LaPorte, Ind. and Mooseheart, Ill. was one of three teams from south of the border that filled out the 1953 schedule.
Muskegon won all three of those contests, with Emerson tasting defeat at Hackley Stadium by the score of 14-0. It was this game with Emerson that drew the attention of Karras during our first meeting some 50 years ago.
I can easily remember the exact day I first met the former Lion legend. It was November 17, 1963, and I bumped into Karras at the Lindell AC Bar & Grill in downtown Detroit.
I know many would find this hard to believe, with the megabucks that today’s professional stars currently take home, but Karras was earning his keep as a bartender right in the midst of the NFL football season.
Karras, along with Green Bay Packer star Paul Hornung, were serving a one-year suspension from football for betting on their own team to win football games.
Karras was encouraged by his friend Jimmy Butsicaris to be a part owner of the Lindell AC, an offer he accepted, which led him to be working behind this Detroit Landmark on Nov. 17.
Fortunately for me, on the eve of my visit, the Lindell AC was unusually barren of customers and Karras spent many minutes with this sports nut, who the following day would be Private E-1 James Moyes of the U.S. Army.
Alex was kind enough to spend many long moments enmeshed in conversation with this soon to be Army draftee. We spent a considerable amount of time reminiscing about a trip he made to Muskegon in 1953 as a member of the Gary Emerson Poets football team.
Karras remembered that visit as if it took place the previous weekend, rather than a full decade before.
Karras, an All-Pro tackle for the Lions, served the role of a bruising running back for Emerson in a game won by the Big Reds and played in a driving rainstorm.
Longtime former Chronicle Sportswriter James F. Henderson summed up Karras’ role in the game as follows: “Only one Emerson back could gain consistently against the Muskegon forwards. He was a big fellow, Alex Karras, who dashed for short gains, and was responsible for almost all of the offensive gains by the visitors. But he never threatened to break away.”
The Big Reds parlayed touchdowns by Norman Dagen and Dick Cooke in the second half as the Big Reds defeated Karras’ team 14-0.
In our meeting in Detroit, one of Karras’ initial comments to me was: “Who in the hell was that big monster you had at tackle. He gave us fits all night long,” asked Karras.
When I quickly replied: “Joel Boyden,” he said “That’s him.”
Boyden was a hulk of a figure, especially for players that suited up some 60 years ago. Boyden was about 6-foot-6 and weighed about 300 pounds, and to this day still holds the Muskegon High School shot put record of 57-0 feet.
Boyden did play some football at the University of Michigan, but he had more desire to be a lawyer than a football player. Years later, the late Joel Boyden would serve as president of the Michigan Bar Association.
However, as a youngster growing up in North Muskegon, I was disappointed that Boyden didn’t play for my beloved Norsemen, as he resided in North Muskegon on the shores of Bear Lake. His sister Judy did attend NMHS where I remember her as an energetic cheerleader.
During my early teens, I had a paper route for The Muskegon Chronicle, and one of my customers included the Boyden household. I will forever remember one summer afternoon, while delivering papers on my route when, right next to the Boyden house mailbox, I spotted Knute Rockne.
No, not the real Knute Rockne, but none other than the man who played Knute Rockne in the movies, Pat O’Brien!
Many years later, I had the opportunity to interview Joel Boyden at halftime of a Muskegon Catholic vs. Grand Rapids Catholic football game, and I asked Joel did I really see Pat O’Brien? He said I sure did, as O’Brien and Joel’s father were great friends, as the Hollywood movie icon would often visit the Boyden’s over the years.
Getting back to my visit with Karras, I was curious as to how this hulking figure behind the bar, who could undoubtedly tear me from limb to limb in seconds escape the draft? Wouldn’t our country feel a great deal safer with the Alex Karras’ of the world in the armed forces rather than a scrawny Jim Moyes?
When I meekly posed this question to Karras he quickly confided to me how he was exempt from the draft.
“I flunked my eye test. Somebody had advised me that when I go in for my pre draft-physical to make out like you’re as blind as a bat. And it worked,” Karras said.
Our paths would cross again 6 years later.
I was serving my second year as a high school broadcaster for WTCM, a Traverse City station that also carried the Detroit Lions game on the radio. The station asked me if I would attend Media Day at the Lions; training camp in Cranbrook and tape some promos with a few Lions players.
I was, at one time. a diehard Lion fan until the Lions traded Muskegon’s own Earl Morrall to the New York Giants in 1965. The trading of one of my childhood idols left a bitter taste in my mouth, a trait somewhat strengthened after getting less than a royal treatment from Lion personnel while at Cranbrook.
Traveling to Cranbrook with me on this assignment was Traverse City St. Francis head football coach Mike Kanitz, a former all around high school sports star at Muskegon St. Mary’s.
‘Big Mike’ was a high school teammate of Jim Morse, captain of the Notre Dame team in 1956 that included the Heisman Trophy winner who served the same suspension as Karras – Paul Hornung.
I recall that, in addition to many media personnel, there also were young kids hanging around seeking autographs from Lion players. The autograph seekers, believing that Mike had to be a member of their beloved Lions, often hounded the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Kanitz for his signature.
When it came time to confront a few Lion players to procure the promos, I was stunned when I discovered my batteries were dead in my tape recorder.
After getting many ‘tough luck’ comments from a few of the Lion brass present, Mike was kind enough to scurry nearby to find a store that sold my needed batteries.
After losing valuable time until Mike returned with the batteries, I did finally get a few generic promos from the likes of Lem Barney and Wayne Walker: “Hi, I’m Wayne Walker, listen to all the Lions games this year on WTCM.”
Then I spotted the most popular Lion of them all off to the side, No. 71, Alex Karras. I approached Alex with my tale of woe about the batteries and he quickly consented to join me for an interview.
It was some time later that I found out he had shunned all the more visible local TV and radio guys and, for some strange reason, only granted me an interview.
I thought it very odd at the time that I had a big crowd around me while I chatted with Alex, many peering over our shoulders with their own tape recorders extended.
I soon found out that Alex had a memory like an elephant. I was absolutely startled with Alex’s initial response when I asked Alex about his recollections of playing in Muskegon back in 1953.
“Funny you should bring that up with you being from Muskegon,” said Karras.
I think we talked for about 10 minutes or so, discussing everything under the sun except Lion football.
Following the talk with Karras I was so proud when Kanitz told me that it was really a great interview. I couldn’t wait to get back to Traverse and have the tape played on the air.
However, it never happened, as the staunchly conservative owner of the station was upset with comments Karras had made about Traverse City. Alex had mentioned during the course of our taping that he was very interested in procuring some property in Traverse City, but he was very upset with the price. He mentioned the realtor’s name and said, “this guy has a license to steal.”
Perhaps one of my proudest of broadcasting moments never hit the air and the tape was lost forever.
However, I still have those great moments with Karras to cherish and I will forever be grateful that he took a few moments of his valuable time to spend with a young budding reporter.
Jim Moyes is a Muskegon sports historian who periodically shares his memories with the Local Sports Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]