Sometimes, greatness reveals itself early and is as obvious as the ending to a Wes Craven movie. Other times, it takes a little while for it to surface.
For Harold Carmichael, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday night after a more than three-decade wait, it took a while.
During his first two seasons with the Eagles, no one looked at Carmichael, a 1971 seventh-round pick out of Southern University, and said, “Boy, there’s a guy who’s definitely gonna be in Canton some day.”
He was 6-foot-8 with huge hands and long legs and a catch radius as big as the Jersey Pine Barrens. But injuries, and coaches who didn’t seem to have the foggiest idea how to use a wide receiver that tall, delayed his development.
He played much of his rookie season with a dislocated thumb, then missed the last five games with a knee injury. He caught just 20 passes with no touchdowns.
He appeared in 13 of 14 games his second year, but languished behind the team’s top two wideouts, Ben Hawkins and Harold Jackson, and again caught just 20 passes with two TDs.
“Some guys can just walk on the field and it happens,” Carmichael said. “That wasn’t me. I had to work at it. I had to get my mind and these long legs working together. It took a while. I used to fall on my face so much trying to run patterns.”
That all changed in Carmichael’s third season in Philadelphia thanks to Boyd Dowler. A former Pro Bowl wide receiver with the Green Bay Packers, Dowler was the Eagles’ wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator under Mike McCormack from 1973-75.
Dowler had played in the league for 13 years and was an integral part of the Packers dynasty that won five NFL titles in the 1960s. He stood 6-5 and understood that you don’t use big receivers the same way you use smaller ones.
“Boyd was a big wide receiver who ran great patterns at Green Bay,” Carmichael said. “When he came here, he said, ‘You can’t run patterns like a 5-10 guy.’
“Boyd and Mike changed the passing offense around so I didn’t have to take those choppy steps. We’d run 6-yard outs and things like that. Roman Gabriel got there in ’73 as well. They understood the pass routes that I needed to run.
“Everybody loves those 4.2 [40-yard dash] guys. I was a 4.6 guy. I always felt I had to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guy that had the speed.
“I had to make the most of my size and put myself between the defender and the ball and use my long arms to catch anything close to me.”
Thanks in large part to Dowler, Carmichael’s career took off in ’73. He led the league in receptions (67) and receiving yards (1,116) that year and had nine touchdown catches. Over the next nine seasons, from 1973 to 1981, Carmichael had 476 catches and 70 touchdowns and averaged 15.5 yards per catch.
He finished his career with 590 receptions and 79 touchdowns. The only wide receiver from Carmichael’s era who had more TD catches was Paul Warfield, who had 85.
Warfield, however, had the good fortune to play for winning teams most of his career. He played on three league champions with Cleveland and Miami, including the Dolphins’ undefeated team in 1972. Carmichael didn’t play on a team with a winning record until his eighth year in the league.
One of the problems with the Hall of Fame’s selection process is that the selectors have long favored players from great teams over similarly talented players from marginal or bad teams.
Dowler’s Packers teams have 11 players in Canton. The Steelers’ four Super Bowl winners from the 1970s have 10 players in the Hall of Fame. The Dolphins, who won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1972-73, have seven players in the Hall of Fame. And the Cowboys, who went to three Super Bowls in four years (won one) in the ’70s, have a whopping eight players with bronze busts.
Warfield was a first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after his retirement.
Carmichael has had to wait and wait and wait before getting his ticket punched last year by the Hall’s senior committee. And then the COVID-19 pandemic cruelly forced him to wait another year to be enshrined.
The wait finally will end for him Saturday night when he will enter the Hall with the rest of the class of 2020 -- the ceremony for the 2021 class will be on Sunday -- at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Jim Solano, a longtime friend who was Carmichael’s agent for most of his career, will present him at the ceremony.
“It’s been a very trying time waiting all these years,” Carmichael admitted. “People have been telling me for a long time now that I deserved to be in. But I didn’t know if I was good enough.
“I tried to play my best and be the best that I could be when I played. But it was not for me to say I should be in the Hall of Fame. It was only for me to put the numbers up and be the person that they would want to see in the Hall of Fame.”
Carmichael averaged a touchdown every 7.5 catches during his career. There are just four wideouts in the Hall of Fame with a better touchdown-to-reception rate: Randy Moss (1/6.3), Lance Alworth (1/6.4), Terrell Owens (1/7.0) and Don Maynard (1/7.2).
Just six wide receivers who played most of their career before 1985 have more touchdown catches than Carmichael: Steve Largent (100), Don Hutson (99), Alworth (85), Warfield (85), Tommy McDonald (84), and Art Powell (81). Powell is the only one of those six not in the Hall of Fame.
Carmichael played 13 seasons for the Eagles. They made the playoffs just four times, all after Dick Vermeil arrived in 1976 and replenished the roster with talent, including trading for Ron Jaworski.
Thirty-four of Carmichael’s 79 touchdown catches came during those four playoff seasons with Vermeil and Jaworski, including nine in 1980 when the Eagles beat the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game and made it to the Super Bowl.
“He was a freak of nature at the position,” said Vermeil, who is one of Carmichael’s close friends and will be in Canton Saturday to see him finally get his bronze bust.
“Harold introduced me to the concept that no ball was uncatchable. I saw him make catches that, if I had been really bright, I would’ve given him more opportunities to do it.”
Vermeil drove his players hard. He inherited a team that had won a total of 18 games the previous four seasons and hadn’t had a winning season since 1966. His practices were long and grueling. He wanted to find out who really wanted to play for him and who didn’t.
“I thought Dick was crazy at one time because of the way he worked us,” Carmichael said. “His training camps were insane. We were going 2½ to 3 hours twice a day with pads. And then we’d have meetings right up until curfew.
“We understood that he was trying to instill discipline and let us know that he was the boss and that he was running the show.”
Carmichael was one of just 12 players Vermeil inherited from McCormack who still were on the roster three years later when the team made the playoffs..
“He called us the Core 12,” Carmichael said. “He built the team around us. There were some great guys among those 12, and I really respected the way they played.”
After Vermeil was hired by owner Leonard Tose in 1976, he had his staff go through all of the game film from the previous four seasons so they could get an idea of the potential keepers and the players they might want to get rid of.
Carl Peterson, who would become Vermeil’s player personnel chief, noticed that Carmichael occasionally liked to do a dice roll with the football after he scored a touchdown.
“He had these monstrous hands,” said Peterson. “When he would score, he would shake the ball in his hand and then roll it into the end zone like a pair of dice. Like he was shooting craps.
“That was a different time and Dick, as everyone knows, was a no-nonsense coach. I’m looking at that and I’m thinking to myself, Harold’s not going to be around long if he tries to do that with Dick.
“I remember the first time Dick saw it. He said to me, ‘Carl, make a note of that. You know how I feel about that kind of thing. You might tell the young man that I’m not going to condone anything like that.’ ”
Carmichael got the message.
“I went back to just spiking it,” he laughed.
The road to the Pro Football Hall of Fame began in a bowling alley for Carmichael. Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., he played touch football on the streets and tackle on whatever patch of ground he and his friends could find.
On rainy days, they played inside the shell of an unfinished building on Edgewood Avenue that was supposed to be a bowling alley.
“It had a roof over the top, and walls. But they never put the windows in,” said Carmichael. “Inside, it was all sand. Almost like the beach sand here [at the Jersey shore]. Whenever it rained, we went in there and played. Even when it didn’t rain, we would go in there and play.
“A lot of good players from the city played in there. Sam Davis, who played for the Steelers [a guard who started 114 games from 1967-79], played there. So did Kenny Burrough [a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver with Houston]. After I found out I had made the Hall of Fame last year, I thought back to those days in Jacksonville and the bowling alley and the guys I grew up with. They supported me, still support me, and helped me hone my skills.”
Carmichael attended William Raines High School, a Florida football powerhouse that has sent more than two dozen players to the NFL, including him and Burrough, former Eagles cornerback Lito Sheppard and safety Brian Dawkins, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018 in his second year of eligibility.
He walked on at Southern University and ended up playing three sports – basketball, track and field (he threw the discus and javelin), and of course, football, where he was a teammate of Mel Blount, another future Hall of Famer.
“I went to school in Jacksonville with Mel’s first cousin,” Carmichael said. “Her name was Brenda Blount. From first grade all the way up to 12th grade, I was madly in love with her. But she didn’t want anything to do with me.
“When I got to Southern, I’d be going against Mel every day in practice. With the other wide receivers, when they would catch a pass on him, he would two-hand-touch them. But when I would catch a ball on him, he would clothesline me, forearm me.
“One day I said to him, ‘Did Brenda say anything about me to you? Because you’re really tough on me.’ He just laughed.
“He eventually took me under his wing a little bit and helped prepare me for the NFL. He was one of the greatest guys I ever played with or against.”
The Sequoia Ax
When he first got to the NFL, Carmichael’s size made him an inviting target for defensive backs in an age when they could pretty much do anything they wanted to receivers as long as it didn’t involve a knife or gun.
George Allen, who was Washington’s head coach from 1971-77, would have his defensive backs go for Carmichael’s knees and try to cut him down at the line of scrimmage. Pat Fischer, a 5-9 cornerback, was particularly adept at cutting.
“Pat would come up on the snap and submarine Harold before he could even get off the line,” said Carl Peterson.
“My first couple of years, Pat had the experience on me until I really understood what I had to do to get around him,” Carmichael said.
“I found out after I retired that they called it the Sequoia Ax. You can’t do it anymore. But they would cut me down at the line of scrimmage. It wouldn’t always be Pat. It would be a different guy every time. I didn’t know who was coming at me.
“Sometimes they would use a safety to cut me. Sometimes it would be a corner. I was like the girl in The Exorcist. My head was spinning. I was trying to see everybody and read defenses at the same time. It was pretty tough dealing with it.”
Meet me at the corner
The Eagles didn’t know quite what to do with Carmichael after they drafted him. They tried moving him inside to tight end, but defensive ends and linebackers threw him around like a rag doll.
“I was so skinny,” he said. “When I first got to the Eagles, they said I was a defensive back who could also play wide receiver. But they had it backwards. I hadn’t played defensive back since high school.”
And you wondered why the Eagles had just one winning season in 16 years from 1962 through 1977?
With the arrival of Dowler and the ’73 trade for quarterback Roman Gabriel, the Eagles started to get a clue about how to best use Carmichael.
They countered the Sequoia Ax by becoming one of the first teams in the NFL to use wide-receiver bubble screens. They continued to use them when Vermeil arrived in ’76.
“I hate the bubble route they run now,” Carmichael said. “But I loved the one we ran, especially when [offensive tackle] Jerry Sisemore would slide out and kick out the defensive back.
“One of the things I loved doing was running after the catch, and that gave me the chance to do it. Dick [Vermeil] told me one time that I had like an 18-yard average on it.”
Carmichael averaged 15.2 yards per catch over his career. He averaged 17.5 yards per catch from 1978-81 with Jaworski throwing to him. Thirty-four of Jaworski’s 84 touchdown passes during that four-year span were to Carmichael.
Jaworski and Carmichael mastered a play that Hall of Famer Sid Gillman, who was Vermeil’s quarterbacks coach, called “meet me at the corner.”
It wasn’t terribly complicated. When the Eagles got inside the red zone, Carmichael would run toward the corner of the end zone and Jaworski would lob the ball up in the air to him. More often than not, the 6-8 Carmichael would come down with it.
“Sid would say, ‘Right down the chimney, Ron,’ ” Carmichael said. “And I would say, ‘Meet me at the corner.’ Whatever I had to do to get to that pylon, that’s what I would do. Ron knew that that’s where he had to throw the ball.”
Said Jaworski: “It wasn’t just that Harold was 6-8. His hands almost touched the ground. He had a wingspan that was just amazing.
“We had to design new signals every week because, when we got to the red zone, teams knew what was coming.”
Jaworski and Carmichael would spend a lot of practice time trying to perfect “meet me at the corner.” They would work on it during the week in practice and then spend extra time practicing it the day before the game.
“We put a lot of time into it,” Carmichael said. “Even though they knew it was coming, it wasn’t stopped that much. If it wasn’t completed, it usually was because Ron was rushed and had to throw it out of bounds. We scored on it 95% of the time.”
Jaworski, like many of Carmichael’s many former Eagles teammates, will be on hand Saturday night for his friend’s enshrinement. Maybe they can run one last “meet me at the corner” with his bronze bust.
“I could talk for hours about Harold the football player,” Jaworski said. “But he’s an even better person. The character of the man is just extraordinary. He set the standard.
“When I got to Philadelphia in ’77, he had already established himself as one of the league’s premier wide receivers. In a very short time, I understood why. That run of years he had were about as good as you can get -- from two years before I got there to the years we played together. He was my go-to guy.”