To a generation of TV and film fans, Alex Karras will forever be the loving adoptive dad on the 1980s sitcom "Webster" or the big guy who punched a horse in 1974's "Blazing Saddles." Before his acting days, he was a football star, a three-time All-Pro defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions in the 1960s.
Now 76, and diagnosed with dementia, Karras is taking on the role of lead plaintiff: He and his wife, Susan Clark, are two of 119 people who filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the latest complaint brought against the NFL by ex-players who say the league didn't do enough to protect them from head injuries.
"All through the time that I've been with him, he has suffered headaches and dizziness and high blood pressure and all kinds of things that are ... usually the result of multiple concussions," Clark said from Los Angeles in a telephone interview with 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," Clark said. "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."
Clark, who also played the wife of Karras' character on "Webster," said he was formally diagnosed with dementia about seven years ago, but symptoms first showed up more than a dozen years ago.
Day-to-day life, Clark said, "would be very difficult for him without help. He doesn't drive a car anymore. He used to love to drive. He was an amazing cook, Italian and Greek food. He doesn't cook anything at all anymore — he can't remember what his recipes were."
Karras and 69 other ex-players named in Thursday's suit are among more than 1,000 former NFL players suing the league, lawyers involved say. The cases say not enough was done to inform players about the dangers of concussions in the past, and not enough is done to take care of them today.
The 10th overall pick in the first round of the 1958 NFL draft out of Iowa, Karras played his entire career with the Lions before retiring in 1970 at age 35. He was a first-team All-Pro in 1960, 1961 and 1965, and he made the Pro Bowl four times. He missed the 1963 season when he was suspended by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in a gambling probe.
The complaint filed Thursday states: "During his NFL career, Mr. Karras sustained repetitive traumatic impacts to his head and/or concussions on multiple occasions. Currently, Mr. Karras suffers from various neurological conditions and symptoms related to the multiple head traumas."
One of the lawyers representing Karras and more than 500 other former players in their cases against the NFL, Craig Mitnick, said: "The NFL not only misled players, and not only was negligent but, we believe, deliberately withheld information that could have protected these former players, and ... could have changed the way their lives were lived."
Mitnick declined to make Karras available for an interview.
The NFL has said it did not intentionally seek to mislead players and has taken action to better protect players and to advance the science of concussion management and treatment.
"Here's the thing: The bigger picture is what interests me and Alex. There are millions of people with dementia or Alzheimer's. The football players are maybe the worst cases, because they have had multiple concussions and brain stem injuries. But this is a public-health issue. This is the beginning of a long, long discussion," said Clark, who married Karras in 1980. "The football players and their spouses — all of us — are shaking it up a bit, saying, 'Hey, you have to pay attention to this.'"
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich