The old film canister writer/producer Ray Didinger found at NFL Films tells the story of the origin of a Philadelphia Eagles legend.
It was the first football game ever played at Veterans Stadium, a pre-season Eagles matchup with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were not much of anything yet, but they did have O. J. Simpson starting his second year as a running back.
It was in the second half of the game, and NFL Films had miked the Bills sideline. Simpson was already out of the game and chatting with the chain gang plying that side of the field.
“You can hear the public address announcer say, ‘And that pass was caught by Harold Carmichael for eight yards,’” said Didinger. “And soon after, you can hear him say, ‘Another one caught for 10 yards by Carmichael.’
“So you see Simpson turn to the guy on the chains and saying, ‘Who is that big rookie?’” said Didinger. The chain gang guy identifies him as Carmichael. “And then Simpson says, ‘Where is he from?’ And the guy says, ‘Southern University.’”
Simpson is only mildly impressed by Carmichael’s collegiate lineage, but then he makes another catch.
“Simpson asks the guy what round they got Carmichael in and the guy says the seventh round,” said Didinger. “‘Seventh round?’ says O.J. and he turns to J.D. Hill, a Buffalo receiver and says, ‘They got that big rookie in the seventh round. All these computers and they get that guy in the seventh round. Ain’t that a trip?’”
The Harold Carmichael trip, begun in that obscure pre-season game in 1971, lasted a good long time. For the next 13 seasons, Carmichael was a star wide receiver for the Eagles—in fact, the tallest wide receiver in the history of both the team and the National Football League at six-foot-eight, so no wonder Simpson took note of him that day.
He is still the Eagles’ all-time leader in catches (590), yardage gained receiving (8,985) and touchdowns (79).
Carmichael’s legacy with the team, though, has not just been on the field. For the last 17 years, he has been a jack-of-all-trades behind the scenes, primarily as the director of player and community relations. That means he has spent a lot of time guiding young players in comportment and sensibility both on and off the field, and dealing with those players’ interactions with the community beyond the Linc.
In April, a few months after his 65th birthday, Carmichael retired from that job as well. He will still do some work with the Eagles during the season, but for now, he is happy he has had two significant football careers.
“I would have to say I was blessed once as a player, and then blessed again to have had the opportunity to help people after that career was over,” said Carmichael.
Though he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and goes there at least once each winter to visit a sister, he has become a big Philadelphia partisan, spending most of his post-playing years living in nearby South Jersey.
“I say I was born in Jacksonville, but I also say I grew up in Philadelphia. I mean, really grew up here,” he said.
Given that seemingly every team drafting for every position wants someone tall and taller, it is hard to go back to 1971 when a 6-foot-8 wide receiver was not just looked upon as a freak, but not really believed.
“The draft back then was not what it is today. There was no ESPN or NFL Network. Basically, the Eagles made their selections and the writers were all in a press room at The Vet. The public relations director came by with a sheet about the seventh round draft pick and handed it out,” said Didinger. When it said the pick was a 6-foot-8 receiver, he said, many reporters thought it was a misprint—probably 6-foot-3 or something like that.
“But when he came to the rookie minicamp and came walking out of the tunnel, we all stopped,” said Didinger. “We had never seen a player like that before. We just stared watching him walk out.”
Still, said Didinger, few gave him much of a shot. In fact, at the end of his first season, one in which he also played some tight end and got his knee banged up, it really was not a sure thing he would be kept. It came down to Carmichael and John Carlos, the Olympic sprinter the Eagles had hoped would be the next Bob Hayes. The Eagles went with the tall long shot instead of the speedy long shot.
No one has regretted it since.
Though Carmichael played one last season, catching but one pass in games with the Jets and Cowboys, he stayed living in South Jersey and eventually went to work for a travel agency, then ran several businesses, including one in sports marketing. He had some work for the NFL and then met a friend whom he thought was coaching, but was, in fact, working with young players, advising them about life, finances and family. Carmichael approached Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie about doing something similar with the Eagles.
“I really didn’t want to coach, but this seemed like something I could be good at, helping players as much as they would let me,” said Carmichael.
Carmichael said that when he was playing under Dick Vermeil, the coach always tried to warn players that they would have a long life after football itself, and to always be mindful of preparing for it.
“Sometimes I would be frustrated when trying to help out a player understand that,” said Carmichael, noting that the average NFL career is but 3.2 years. “Then when I did help them, it would often take even a decade for them to come back and thank me for keeping them from going the wrong way.
“But, you know, the guys still playing in the NFL sometimes have a need to be macho and wouldn’t want to be seen thanking you for that kind of help,” he said. “After they are out of football, they drop that macho thing and understand that they have been given a gift to play football, and then after that, you have to take care of yourself for a long time.”
It wasn’t certain early on that Carmichael was going have a career at all. He injured his knee against Dallas in his first year and thought he might never play again. According to Didinger, he went to sit in the back of the plane alone and started tearing up. Owner Leonard Tose saw this and came to sit by him. After Carmichael lamented that the injury would force him to quit, Didinger said, Tose put his arm around Carmichael and told him everything would be okay and that the team would stand by him.
By his third season in 1973, new Receivers Coach Boyd Dowler had smoothed out Carmichael’s form and he led the league with 67 receptions and 1,116 yards. He caught passes in 127 consecutive games from 1972-80, at the time a record. He became one of the most popular players in Eagles history and is just happy he was able to return the love.
“When I was young, I didn’t lie in bed at night and hope that I would become a football player. I just wanted to be the best person I could be on that particular day,” said Carmichael. “That has turned out to be days and days and months and months and years and years. I hope I have lived that way and have helped other people to do it, too.”