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Profile: Former Eagle Harold Carmichael
After a looong wait, a former Eagle heads to the Hall of Fame
By Dave Spadaro

Photo: Philadelphia Eagles

The telephone rang and, quite honestly, Harold Carmichael wasn’t sure he wanted to answer it on a cold mid-January day in 2020. He was deeply immersed in something he loves to do – watching Westerns on television and, as Carmichael recalls, on this day it was either “Gunsmoke” or “The Rifleman.” Reluctantly he made his way to pick up the call, one that would change his life. On the other end was David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he delivered the news Carmichael had been waiting for since his playing career ended in 1984.

“You know I’m the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, right?” Baker said. “It’s my great privilege to share that you’re going to have a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio. You’re going to be a member of the Centennial Class.”

Carmichael, a Glassboro resident who has lived in South Jersey since the early years of his Eagles career, could barely get the words out. He was numb. “I never thought this would happen. Thank you, David. Thank you, God.”

And that was the beginning of the end of a journey that Carmichael had patiently waited for and, frankly, had given up hope would ever happen. The call came. He would be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame after a brilliant 14-season NFL career – 13 of them with the Eagles during which Carmichael caught 589 passes for 8,978 yards and 79 touchdowns. His career ended in 1984 with Carmichael accumulating, at that time, the 6th-most receptions (590) in NFL history.

For whatever reason, Carmichael’s numbers hadn’t been good enough for Hall of Fame recognition. Truthfully, he had never been close to being named to the Hall of Fame. The NFL changed through the years and wide receivers’ numbers were inflated as the league spread out its offenses and completing passes became easier. Back when Carmichael played, receivers had targets on their backs – and on their necks and their chests and their heads – so defensive backs eagerly took their shots. Today, that kind of treatment would be illegal.

“Back when I played, I felt I was being hog-tied at times,” Carmichael says. “Those were fun challenges, trying to figure out how to get myself open. I got paid to go across the middle. They designed plays to go across the middle and I knew I was going to get popped. I made a lot of big plays doing those 6-yard slant-ins and those crossing routes. It was like street fighting on the field.”

At 6-foot-8, Carmichael found plenty of ways to get open after the Eagles made him a 7th-round draft pick in 1971. He made 4 Pro Bowls. He played in a Super Bowl with the Eagles in 1980 and was named the NFL’s Man of the Year that same year for his off-the-field accomplishments. Carmichael was also named to the Eagles’ Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame.

But the Pro Football Hall of Fame? A deaf ear. And that’s why ESPN broadcaster and South Jersey resident Sal Paolantonio, a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, enters the story. Paolantonio presented the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters with an elaborate and well-researched case on Carmichael’s behalf, imploring them to consider a stellar career during which Carmichael played on a lot of bad Eagles teams and was still an unstoppable force for defensive backfields. He had 4 minutes to convince the voters.

“I’m all about props, so I got NFL Films to produce a 45-second highlight video. I passed out a fact sheet that the Eagles’ media relations department prepared for me and I think the committee really liked it. That was the groundwork,” Paolantonio says.

“You get questions from this blue-ribbon panel about Harold’s career and you have to make the case right then and there and answer questions. We had 20 finalists from the pool of Seniors (a pool that included 209 former players at the start of the process). I had to really be convincing. There was nothing wrong with Harold’s case or his numbers. He had just been forgotten a bit in all of the shuffling through the years. He needed to be brought back in front of a committee that includes very prominent football people who understood his impact.”

It worked. The celebration began. Carmichael was showered with love and affection shortly after the public announcement. A highlight was when he visited the NovaCare Complex and everyone there – coaches, staff, players, Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie – greeted him with a surprise party.

“That’s one of the days when it really sunk in, I felt so emotional. Everyone there, my family for so many years, celebrated with me,” Carmichael says. “It was special. The tears just flowed for me.”

But just as Carmichael ramped up his preparation for a summertime induction, the world stopped. Covid-19 intruded, and the NFL announced there would be no Hall of Fame Ceremony. Carmichael had to wait. Again.

“I wanted to make sure I stayed healthy for as long as it took for me to go to the induction. I followed the science. My whole family followed the science. I had waited 30-something years for this moment, and then we’re in a pandemic and it threw a wet blanket over everything. We couldn’t celebrate in person with anybody. My focus was to make sure that everyone I love stayed healthy and could be there with me when the time came.”

Carmichael will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month in Canton, Ohio, part of a in-person, full-stadium weekend celebration. Carmichael spent one day with his coveted Gold Jacket to make sure it fit perfectly – it did – before sending it back. He knows the bust of his head is being sculpted. The wait, after all these years, has been worth it.

“When I step back and think about it, I never imagined myself being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I wasn’t a blue-chip player coming out of high school,” Carmichael says. “I was a walk-on in college (Southern University) and then was a 7th-round draft choice by the Eagles. As I look back on it, I took on every day separately. I focused on the day-to-day part, because I didn’t know what to expect in the future. I knew I had no guarantees. I leaned on God to guide me. I didn’t have any direction for life or my career.

“I surrounded myself with great people,” he adds, “and I listened to my coaches and the people who really cared for me. All it took was time for this honor to happen. There were times, quite honestly, when I never even thought about it because I thought it would never happen. Well, it’s happened for me. It’s late, but it happened. There are guys who have had 30, 40, 50 years to enjoy the honor of being in the Hall of Fame. I’m 72 years old, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of this with the fans, my family and my friends.”

 

Dave Spadaro

 

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro has covered every Eagles game since 1987 and is seen and heard throughout the year on television, radio and Eagles coverage everywhere. You can hear his Eagles Live Podcast on iTunes.

August 2021
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