Legends and the fall

Alex Karras was a monster on the field, a mythical thing creating chaos and chasing heroes. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The year I was born, Alex Karras went to the Rose Bowl. He won the Outland Trophy, too. That was 1957. He died this week. So goodbye to Alex Karras and goodbye to football and goodbye again to long gone youth.

Mr. Karras was an NFL star in the years I played football with a couple other kids in a neighbor's field. He was a monster, a thick-necked killer of quarterbacks, Grendel grasping with wrapped hands after Bart Starr, after Gale Sayers, the helmet too small on his head. We were children in a field of Timothy grass, jerseys flapping, pretending to be him.

The NFL in those black-and-white and black-and-blue years was elemental, nothing but ice and mud and players like something sprung from the earth. Karras was one of these, a character in a fairy tale down from the crags or up from the dust, life breathed into him by the late Steve Sabol and the slow-motion mythology of NFL Films. The Lions weren't very good, but Karras was an ogre, and the blood feuds and rivalries between Detroit and Chicago and Green Bay and Cleveland felt like something ancient and deep and real.

The NFL has long since been streamlined and sanitized. The game itself is faster and bigger and stronger and more brutal than ever, but the aesthetic now is sleek and frictionless, corporate, artificial, no sleeves on the jerseys or mud on the fields. Somehow there's more of it amounting to less and less. I understand this has as much to do with me growing old as it does with the game or the league.

But as a matter of ticket sales and public relations, the NFL tries now to hide its violence. This is dishonest. Football is the last Great Circus and the last of our epic American fables. To say otherwise, to say any player is not a gladiator -- as Eric Winston did last week with every good intention -- is to misunderstand completely its role and purpose. In the same way it's wrong to suggest that Karras went into show business when he retired from football. He never left.

Every fall, this column links one of the only great American poems ever written about football, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" by James Wright. It was published in 1963, the same year Alex Karras sat out a season's suspension for betting on football. I was 6, and wore a miniature Jim Brown jersey my grandmother sent from Cleveland.

So goodbye to football and to careless youth and to Alex Karras, too, who understood that the real poetry of the game can only be found in playing it.

How far away that all feels now. Football as simple as a fingertip in the dirt. A hitch, a straight fake, a double cross, an antique go route, your fastest on their fastest the length of the field and as far as anyone could throw it. It was cold and you felt the cold on your hands and your face and if it was just the three of you, you'd go when the quarterback slapped the ball and stepped back and back and back.

You run as hard as you can then, lungs working and burning and the sound of it in your ears, hard as you can, and you look back and everything you'll ever know about fear or hope is a football spinning down at you out of a blue American sky.