NFL and “Webster” Star Alex Karras Gone

Alex Karras who transitioned from NFL football hero to sitcom star has died of kidney failure at the age of 77.

Karras played his entire career for the Detroit Tigers. Karras played defensive tackle for the Lions from 1958-70 as part of the “Fearsome Foursome”  and was nicknamed the “Mad Duck”. After retiring from the NFL, he became a commentator for ABC Sports.

He also began an acting career. He played himself in the film adaptation of George Plimpton’s nonfiction sports book Paper Lion. He also had roles in Blazing Saddles and Porky’s. He is probably best known for his role as George Papadapolis, the adoptive father on NBC’s Webster. Karras played a retired NFL player/local sportscaster who, along with real life wife Susan Clark, adopt the recently orphaned  7-year old African-American son of a former teammate. Webster was played by actor Emmanuel Lewis.

He has been in poor health the past few years. He was suffering from dementia which he believed was caused by multiple head injuries (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) during his years as a football player. Karras had joined the class action lawsuit filed by more than 3,000 former players  against the NFL.  Earlier this year,  Susan Clark told the Associated Press:

This physical beating that he took as a football player has impacted his life, and therefore it has impacted his family life… He is interested in making the game of football safer and hoping that other families of retired players will have a healthier and happier retirement.

Two weeks ago, Clark announced that Karras had gone into kidney failure. He had severe swelling of his arms and legs. He was brought home to be with his family for his final few days.

What is Kidney Failure?

If the kidneys are damaged, they don’t work properly. Harmful wastes can build up in your body. Your blood pressure may rise. Your body may retain excess fluid and not make enough red blood cells. This is called kidney failure.

Kidney disease is most often caused by diabetes or high blood pressure. These diseases damage the blood vessels in the kidneys, so the kidneys are not able to filter the blood as well as they used to. Usually this damage happens slowly, over many years. As more and more blood vessels are damaged, the kidneys eventually stop working.

Other risk factors for kidney disease are cardiovascular (heart) disease and a family history of kidney failure.

What are the Symptoms of Kidney Failure?

People in the early stages of CKD usually do not feel sick at all.
People whose kidney disease has gotten worse may:

  • need to urinate more often or less often
  • feel tired
  • lose their appetite or experience nausea and vomiting
  • have swelling in their hands or feet
  • feel itchy or numb
  • get drowsy or have trouble concentrating
  • have darkened skin
  • have muscle cramps

What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a form of brain damage which is believed to be caused by repeated concussions.

Originally described in boxers, and called dementia pugilistica (DP) (commonly called “punch drunk”), symptoms include:

  • memory impairment,
  • speech and gait problems,
  • Parkinsonism,
  • tremors
  • lack of coordination.

Early on there may be emotional instability, erratic behavior, depression and problems with impulse control. Eventually it leads to full-blown dementia. Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali are all suspected to be victims of DP.

In 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania examined the brains of four professional football players who had histories of repeated concussions. Microscopic findings where identical to those found in DP, and he renamed the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The disease is characterized by the build-up of a toxic protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) throughout the brain (brown areas in the picture at right).

These tangled clumps of protein are abnormal and found within the nerve cells in the brain. They were first described by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in one of his patients suffering from dementia. These tangles interfere with the normal functioning of the brain and eventually kill brain cells. Although the dementia of CTE is similiar to that seen in patients with Alzeheimers Disease, they are different conditions.

The damage in the brain is widespread, including the cerebral cortex (which includes the frontal and temporal lobes), the thalamus, hypothalamus, brainstem and spinal cord.

Unfortunately, CTE can only be diagnosed at autopsy using special tests that are not routinely performed.


Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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