January 17, 2020 — Alex Karras was sidelined for the 1963 NFL campaign because of gambling and mob ties, the only blemish on an otherwise immaculate pro football career where he was one of the most feared defensive linemen in the league. Karras was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame this week. He died of kidney failure in 2012 at 77. A man of many talents, Karras was a pro wrestling star and transitioned into a successful career in film and television following his retirement from the NFL in 1970.
During his playing days for the Detroit Lions, Karras held an ownership stake in the Lindell AC, America’s first-ever sports bar located a short distance from where the Lions played their homes games at the old Tigers Stadium on Michigan Avenue. The Detroit mob’s Corrado brothers crew operated a sports book out of the bar and high-ranking members of the Tocco-Zerilli crime family were given field passes for Lions games, often traveling to away games in what the FBI would describe as a “party bus.” Per FBI records, Karras and some of his teammates occasionally drove home from the road games on the mob-sponsored party bus, equipped with casino tables, a full bar and featuring female entertainment.
FBI and Michigan State Police surveillance units also watched Karras socialize with Detroit mafia figures at the swanky Fox and Hounds restaurant and bar in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where mega bookie Don (Dice) Dawson ran his large gambling business out of a back booth in the lounge. Dawson spent so much time at the Fox and Hounds, he eventually bought it. He worked under the protection of the Giacalone brothers (“Tony Jack” & “Billy Jack”), the Detroit crime syndicate’s street bosses. Billy Giacalone pioneered the idea of the pro-football party bus for local high-rollers heading to away games.
The FBI believed Dawson was fixing NFL games with the help of players on the Lions, accusations he denied at the time, but admitted later in life. Dawson was busted in 1970 for running one of the nation’s largest bookmaking operations out of the Fox and Hounds.
Karras admitted to betting on NFL games with mob bookies and the league suspended him for ’63 season. He wrestled instead that fall before returning to the Lions the following year and playing another seven seasons with the team.
Throughout his NFL career, Karras was selected to four Pro Bowls and the NFL named him its All-Decade team for the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, he became a color analyst on Monday Night Football television broadcasts. As an actor, he gained fame for playing slow-witted brute “Mongo” in the Mel Brooks’ classic 1974 western-set comedy Blazing Saddles. The 1980s saw him starring in the hit ABC television sitcom Webster as a former NFL lineman who adopts the African-American son of a teammate killed in a car accident.
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