(Brady photo courtesy of New England Patriots, Karras photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
As shocking as the expected suspension of Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady may be, the truth is there’s nothing new under the sun … or under suspension … in the NFL.
As the controversy over Brady’s involvement, either tacitly or directly, in the deflation of game balls before the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts last January swirled around pro football, many have said there has never been so high profile a player faced with the threat of suspension.
Oh, how quickly we forget.
On April 17, 1963, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, indefinitely suspended 1961 league MVP Paul Hornung, and three-time All-Pro defensive tackle Alex Karras for gambling between $50 and $500 on a number of NFL games. He also fined five of Karras’ teammates with the Detroit Lions for having bet on Hornung’s Green Bay Packers to beat the New York Giants in the 1962 NFL championship game, but did not suspend them.
A three-month probe had begun that January, and when the suspensions were announced the news shocked the country. Hornung, known as The Golden Boy for his hair color and his status as a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame and star running back and kicker for the league-champion Packers, was as big a star as the league had.
He had just set a championship-game scoring record with 19 points, and in 1960 set the NFL record for scoring with 176 points in what was then a 12-game season. That record stood until 2006, when San Diego Chargers’ running back LaDainian Tomlinson scored his 180th point in the 14th game of that season.
Karras was among the NFL’s best defensive lineman on a Detroit team noted for the violent perfection of its defensive front. He not only was suspended but was also ordered to divest his one-third interest in a Detroit bar known as the Lindell A.C. Initially, he refused and threatened to retire. When Rozelle said, in essence, “Be my guest,” Karras relented and sold.
Unlike Karras, Hornung was immediately remorseful, saying at the time, “I did wrong. I should be penalized. I feel more hurt because of my mother than myself. I am truly sorry.”
Years later he would insist he had no animosity toward Rozelle, but Karras never hummed that tune. He once said he would not name his son “after that buzzard,” and always insisted he made only small wagers with friends that did not call into question the “integrity of the game.”
That, however, is exactly the phrase Rozelle used to describe their transgressions and justify what became a year suspension.
Both were reinstated on March 16, 1964, but were never the same players. It has long been believed that Karras paid for his suspension over a lifetime. Although Hornung was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 after having been a finalist 11 times, Karras was never a finalist, meaning his impressive credentials as the anchor of the Lions’ ferocious defense and all-decade selection in the 1960s were never debated by the voters.
Karras case has come up periodically in senior committee discussions, but he has yet to be proposed as a senior candidate.
The “Deflategate” scandal did swirl around Brady in the week leading up to last year’s Super Bowl, but the contentious press conference he held five days before the Patriots left for Glendale, Ariz., to face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX was nothing compared to the cloud that hung over Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Len Dawson at Super Bowl IV.
On the Tuesday before the game, Dawson was named by NBC News anchor David Brinkley on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, which was then the most watched nightly news broadcast in America, as the target of a federal gambling probe after his name was found on a gambler named Donald Dawson. Dawson had been arrested on gambling charges and found to have $400,000 in cash, and the phone number of the Kansas City quarterback on him.
The controversy became so overwhelming for Dawson that the Chiefs moved him into a different hotel under an assumed name. Dawson was later cleared of involvement, and Rozelle termed Brinkley’s report “totally irresponsible.” But that didn’t make his Super Bowl week any easier.
Not even a 24-7 upset of the Minnesota Vikings lessened the burden Dawson carried that week.
“I dont think the victory vindicated anything,” Dawson once said. “Unfortunately, the gambling report put a great deal of stress and strain on me, and more so on my family. But I asked the good Lord to give me the strength and courage to play my best, and I asked Him to let the sun shine on my teammates.
“But, no, the gambling thing didn’t give me any extra incentive. How could it? This was a big game. You don’t need any outside motivation.”
Dawson went 12-for-17 that day for 142 passing yards and one touchdown, and, like Brady last February, was named Super Bowl MVP. But while Dawson’s name was soon cleared, Brady faces a stunning reversal of fortunes if, as expected, he is suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for his involvement in tampering with footballs used to beat the Colts.
Yet as difficult as that will be, it pales in comparison to the year-long suspensions of Hornung and Karras, and the ordeal Len Dawson had to endure when his name was associated with illegal gambling barely five days before Super Bowl IV.