Philadelphia Eagles News

Didinger: Time to put Harold Carmichael in the Hall of Fame

The Pro Football Hall of Fame is opening its doors wider next year. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Football League, there will be 10 senior candidates included in a 20-person enshrinement class. A senior candidate is any player who has been retired for at least 25 years.

In other years, the Hall of Fame classes had a maximum of eight enshrinees, including one or two seniors. In the next round of voting, which will be held in February, the class will be expanded as part of the league's initiative to celebrate its past.

The Class of 2020 will consist of five modern era players, 10 seniors, two coaches, and three contributors (someone other than a coach or player). It will be a great opportunity for all the older players who have been passed over to finally get their day in Canton, O.

I don't have a vote but if I did, I would certainly cast it for Harold Carmichael. It is surprising and frankly disappointing that he hasn't been recognized before. It is hard to overlook someone who stands 6-foot-8 but the Hall of Fame voters have done that for more than 30 years. That's long enough.

Carmichael played 13 seasons in Philadelphia. He still holds the Eagles' records for pass receptions (589), receiving yards (8,978), and touchdowns (79), which is amazing when you consider he has been retired for 35 years and teams are throwing the ball a lot more now than they did in the 1970s and '80s.

He was a tough, durable, and productive player for more than a decade. He set the club record for consecutive games played (162), which was equaled by long snapper Jon Dorenbos. He set an NFL record by catching at least one pass in 127 consecutive games spanning the years 1972 through 1980. The mark was finally broken but it took a future Hall of Famer, Seattle's Steve Largent, to do it.

Typically, Carmichael didn't make a big deal of the streak. In fact, he didn't even realize there was a streak until Bill Werndl informed him. Werndl worked every game as the spotter for the Voice of the Eagles Merrill Reese, so he went back through the stats one day and discovered Carmichael was closing in on the record of 105 consecutive games with a catch held by Danny Abramowicz of the New Orleans Saints.

"I never thought much about the streak," Carmichael said, "but the closer I got to the record, the more people talked about it. I kept it low-key. My attitude was, 'If I do my job, the record will take care of itself.' And that's what happened."

Carmichael set the record on November 4, 1979 with a catch against Cleveland at Veterans Stadium. When he made the reception, they stopped the game and owner Leonard Tose drove onto the field in a golf cart with Harold's wife, Bea, and son, Lee Harold, Jr. The referee presented Carmichael with the ball and Tose gave Bea 106 roses to celebrate the occasion. General manager Jim Murray wheeled out the world's tallest trophy (12 feet tall) in honor of the game's tallest receiver.

The trophy didn't fit anywhere in the Carmichael home, so it wound up on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It is time for the trophy and the man to be reunited.

"They told me they would stop the game, but I wasn't expecting anything like that," Carmichael said. "I thought they would just hand me the ball, I'd wave to the crowd, and that would be it. I felt a little awkward with all the hoopla."

There wasn't any hoopla when Carmichael came to Philadelphia in the 1971 draft. He was a seventh-round pick out of Southern University, the 161st player selected overall. Those were the days before ESPN, Mel Kiper, and wall-to-wall coverage of the draft. We would camp out in the media room at the Vet and wait for someone to hand us a press release with the name of the team's latest selection.

I still remember Jim Gallagher, the Eagles' public relations director, walking through the room handing out the release on this kid Carmichael. I said there must be some mistake.

"This says he's 6-8," I said. "That can't be right."

"That's what they told us," Jim said with a shrug.

A few days later, the Eagles brought their rookies in for a workout and that's when we got our first up close and personal look at Harold Carmichael. When he walked onto the artificial turf at the Vet, we couldn't believe our eyes. He was every bit of 6-8, but he was a frail-looking 210 pounds. He needed to refine his route running, but with his height and long arms he could catch anything thrown in his zip code.

At Training Camp that summer, Carmichael made at least one "can-you-believe-that?" catch a day. There were one-handed catches and catches where he simply reached over the top of a defender and snatched the ball away. When he ran a sideline route and extended his arms it was like he widened the playing field by 5 yards. No one had seen a weapon quite like it.

He had a lot to learn. He came from a small school with a limited playbook, so the finer points of the NFL passing game were new to him. But he had a physical advantage that the coaches wanted to exploit, so they were willing to teach him and he was willing to work. He was on the field every day before practice and he stayed after practice running routes and doing drills in the heat until the sweat was dripping off his chin.

He was competing for a roster spot with John Carlos, the Olympic medalist who earned international headlines for raising a black-gloved fist on the medal platform at the 1968 Summer Games. The Eagles selected Carlos in the 1970 NFL Draft even though he never played a down of organized football. They thought with his size (6-3, 210) and world-class speed that he could be converted into a wide receiver. They kept Carlos on the practice squad for the '70 season, teaching him the basics and hoping he would blossom in Year 2.

In the end, it came down to a choice for the last roster spot – Carlos or Carmichael. The coaches had a full year invested in Carlos, but they saw more potential in Carmichael. After the final preseason game, they released Carlos and kept the rookie. It proved to be one of the best personnel decisions in franchise history.

Eagles assistant coach Tom Fears, who was a Hall of Fame receiver with the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s, said of Carmichael: "He's a big target but this is the NFL. I'm afraid some tackler is gonna snap him in half."

They almost succeeded the first year when the coaches put Carmichael at tight end. He hurt his knee and underwent surgery and no one knew if he could come back, but when quarterback Roman Gabriel came to the Eagles in 1973, he developed instant chemistry with Carmichael. That season Carmichael moved to wide receiver and led the NFL in catches (67) and receiving yards (1,116). Atlanta coach Norm Van Brocklin, the former Eagles quarterback, marveled at Carmichael's size and agility.

"That young man can stand flat-footed and eat the apples out of a tree," Van Brocklin said.

For the next 10 seasons, Carmichael had more catches for more yards and more touchdowns than any other receiver in the NFL. Think of other receivers in the decade: Carmichael had 511 catches to Drew Pearson's 442; he had 74 touchdowns to Cliff Branch's 62. In receiving yards for the decade, Carmichael had 7,899 to Charlie Joiner's 7,408 and Joiner is in the Hall of Fame.

Most fans have an image of Carmichael using his size advantage to catch alley-oop passes in the end zone and he certainly did some of that. But people are surprised to learn he averaged 15.2 yards per catch for his career and he averaged a whopping 19.5 yards per catch in 1978 when the Eagles went to the playoffs for the first time under coach Dick Vermeil.

He was voted to play in four Pro Bowls and was an exemplary citizen off the field. He won the NFL Man of the Year Award, now named after the late Walter Payton, in 1980 for his work with Eagles Fly for Leukemia, the United Way, the Boy Scouts, and the Fellowship Commission of Philadelphia. After he retired from the game, he still found a way to contribute working in the Eagles' front office as director of player development and alumni relations.

Carmichael was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and attended the same high school as cornerback Lito Sheppard and Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins, but he came to Philadelphia and made it his home. He fully retired from the Eagles a few years ago but each year he and his close friend Jim Solano put on the Otho Davis Scholarship Fund Dinner to raise money for future generations of athletic trainers.

"I love Philadelphia," he said. "The people here are the nicest and warmest in the world and the fans are the greatest and the most knowledgeable."

Hopefully in 2020, Carmichael will add another address – Canton, Ohio.

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of hisEagles History columns here. He is also the author of_ he Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.

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