Iowa football players step off gridiron and into the spotlight

Pat Harty
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Editor's note: This is the second story in our Top 7 series, which will run the day of each of the Hawkeyes' seven home games.

The story of former Iowa football player Alex Karras reads like fiction.

"That's a career path if you look at it, it's rare not only for the University of Iowa, but there aren't many people, ex-athletes, anywhere around the country that if you look at his resume and the kind of things that he did," former Iowa quarterback and West High graduate Paul Burmeister said. "He was a fantastic player."

Born in 1935 and raised in Gary, Ind., the multitalented Karras blazed a trail that would be hard to duplicate.

It's hard enough to become a star athlete or a famous actor or a big-time sports broadcaster, and yet Karras accomplished all three before succumbing to kidney failure Oct. 8, 2012, at the age of 77.

Nile Kinnick is without question the most famous Iowa football player, but Karras might be second, given everything he accomplished on and off the playing field.

Karras tops this list of former Iowa football players who have made their mark as entertainers or broadcasters.

He probably can't match late-night television host and Ball State alum David Letterman in terms of fame. But Letterman, whose alma mater faces Iowa on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, also didn't play college or professional football.

Karras emerged on the national scene as a dominant football player at the University of Iowa in the mid-1950s. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman as a senior in 1957 and finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

He dabbled in professional wrestling before launching an NFL career that spanned 12 seasons, all with the Detroit Lions. He worked for ABC as a commentator for Monday Night Football for three years in the 1970s, while also focusing on his acting.

Karras is most noted for his role as Mongo in the 1974 comedy film "Blazing Saddles" and for starring in the ABC sitcom "Webster" (1983-89) alongside his wife, Susan Clark, as the title character's adoptive father.

"I played with a lot of characters, too, but everything I hear about him or read about I'm like, 'God, I wish I could have played with that guy,' " Burmeister said of Karras. "He was a character all the way. He was obviously in addition to having that kind of personality, he must have been extremely smart as well to have made it as far as he did in the entertainment business."

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Other Iowa football players who made their mark as entertainers, broadcasters

No. 2: Ed Podolak

The former Hawkeye quarterback and running back, who played nine seasons in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, has served as the Iowa radio color analyst for football since 1982, building a loyal following with his knowledge of the game and smooth delivery. He also worked as a color commentator for NFL telecasts for NBC in 1978. "It's been a great ride, that's for sure," Podolak told The Des Moines Register in a recent interview.

No. 3: Paul Burmeister

Iowa's starting quarterback as a senior in 1993 led the Hawkeyes to a berth in the inaugural Alamo Bowl. Burmeister, who graduated from West High in 1989, worked as the weekend sports director at KWWL-7 in Waterloo from 2001-04 before joining the NFL Network, where he worked for a decade in southern California before recently moving to Connecticut to become the primary host for NBC Sports Network's daily cable program "Pro Football Talk. "By the time I was a senior, I was very comfortable representing the team and I was always comfortable talking to (the media)," Burmeister said. "But I never thought, 'Boy, this is what I want to do.' "

No. 4: Anthony Herron

The former Hawkeye and NFL defensive lineman currently works as a college football analyst for the Pac-12 Network. He also has worked for the Big Ten Network as a game and studio analyst, NFL Network as an analyst for Arena Football, and NBCSN as a college football analyst.

No. 5: Danan Hughes

The former Iowa football and baseball star has served as a college football analyst for the Big Ten Network since 2008.

No. 6: Anton Narinskiy

Born in Russia, the former defensive lineman is chasing his dream to be an actor. He played a Russian bodyguard in the movie "Real Steel."

No. 7: Chuck Long

The record-setting quarterback and former college head coach is now a game and studio analyst for the Big Ten Network.