For most NFL receivers, high-pointing the football is a measure of talent.
Depending on their height, a receiver may need to outleap a defender for a crucial catch.
Harold Carmichael didn’t have to worry about that.
At 6’8”, the “King of the Contested Ball” could almost stand flat-footed and still outreach his man for the pigskin.
Talk about a red zone threat.
At 6-foot-8, @Eagles great Harold Carmichael is thought to be the tallest WR in @NFL history. Though he played before the explosion of the passing game, Carmichael caught 79 career TDs (28th-most of all time).
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) September 23, 2018
For 13 years as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Carmichael constantly frustrated opposing secondaries while he helped Philly reach Super Bowl XV.
By the time he retired, Carmichael’s contribution to the pro game had lasting effects as scouts scoured the country for a pass-catcher with his size and talent.
Carmichael eventually became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, proving that even former college walk-ons can make it as pros.
This is the story of Harold Carmichael.
Lee Harold Carmichael was born on September 22, 1949, in Jacksonville, Florida.
— Derek Boyko (@derek_boyko) September 22, 2016
As a child, Carmichael had a lot of interests, but football was at the center of his universe.
He and some friends played games wherever they could find space.
Occasionally, that space was a partially constructed bowling alley that had not been finished.
“We called it the bowling alley because they were going to build this bowling alley. But for some reason, it stopped. So they had this big shell around it, the walls and no windows and all. So when it rained we’d go into the bowling alley, and we’d play,” remarked Carmichael in 2020.
While attending William M. Raines High School in Jacksonville, Carmichael played quarterback, safety, and receiver for the school’s football team
“…worst team in our school’s history,” he admitted in 1980.
He played baseball as well and had a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates during his senior year.
Carmichael also played trombone in the Raines High band, although he wasn’t very good.
“We had a conductor who would rap you on the head with his baton every time you hit a sour note. I got rapped a lot. That’s when I first learned about playing with pain,” Carmichael said.
As he neared the end of his senior year, the 6’6” Carmichael didn’t have any scholarship opportunities and his future was uncertain.
Thankfully, fate intervened one day in the form of an errant pass.
“We were throwing the ball around the gym one afternoon and a buddy of mine uncorked the wildest pass you ever saw,” Carmichael said. “I went up and stabbed it with one hand and, wouldn’t you know, a scouting friend of our coach was watching at that exact moment.”
The scout was from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Carmichael’s one-handed catch was enough for the scout to invite him to attend the school as a walk-on.
Since that was his only offer, Carmichael accepted.
Three Sport Star at Southern
During his time at Southern, Carmichael continued to grow and didn’t stop until he was 6’8.
With his size, the Jaguars’ coaches used Carmichael everywhere.
He threw the javelin and discus for the track and field team, and he was the center for the Southern men’s basketball team.
“Basketball, I thought I could have a shot at playing that, but I just couldn’t dribble,” said Carmichael in 2020.
Carmichael’s best sport was football, where he was a four-year starter.
#SULegends | Harold Carmichael attended William M. Raines High School in Jacksonville, Florida, where he played the trombone in the school's band.
Standing 6 foot 8 inches, he walked-on at Southern University and became a tri-sport athlete. pic.twitter.com/0C8vzufqVi
— Southern University Jaguars (@SouthernUsports) February 2, 2022
As a tight end and receiver, Carmichael never led the Jaguars in receptions.
However, a fellow teammate, future Pittsburgh Steelers great Mel Blount, pushed Carmichael every day to get better.
“I think he played me tougher than anybody else on the practice field. He was one of the toughest defensive backs I went against. Lester Hayes, a bunch of guys I went against that are very tough, but Mel Blount, he got me ready for the NFL,” said Carmichael.
Blount’s daily teachings helped Carmichael receive All-Conference honors as a senior.
Late Round Pick
As the 1971 NFL Draft approached, teams weren’t sure how Carmichael could be used in the pros.
Even though he had great height and had played two positions, the Jaguars used Carmichael primarily as a blocker rather than a pass receiver.
Carmichael believed that his 4.7 speed along with his frame would sway teams to draft him early.
“I was thinking maybe third round and $30,000 a year and a Lincoln Continental,” he said in 1980.
By the seventh round, Carmichael was still on the board until the Philadelphia Eagles selected him with the 161st overall pick in the seventh round.
After arriving in Philly, the Eagles coaching staff copied the same thing the coaches at Southern did and played Carmichael as tight end and receiver.
Carmichael also arrived in Philadelphia during a rough stretch of football.
By the 1971 season, the Eagles had not been to the postseason since the franchise won the NFL title in 1960.
It didn’t help that during Carmichael’s first two years in the league, Philly had two different head coaches, Jerry Williams and Ed Khayat.
The unstable coaching situation trickled down to Carmichael who was having a difficult time trying to crack the starting lineup.
“We had Harold Jackson and Ben Hawkins as the starting receivers here,” said Carmichael. “Coming into the league with them being veterans and me trying to learn how to be a football player and questioning myself whether I could play in the National Football League, watching these guys, I was trying to do everything they were doing.”
During the 1971 and 1972 seasons, Carmichael started eight games total, caught 20 passes both years, averaged 280 receiving yards, and only caught two touchdowns.
Harold Carmichael flying high for the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/sXPYJvPEdB
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) August 28, 2016
Although he wasn’t a featured piece of the Eagles’ offense, Carmichael’s fortunes were about to change.
Breakthrough Year in 1973
In 1973, Mike McCormack became the head coach of the Eagles, and Carmichael became a starter.
Quarterback Roman Gabriel had a reasonably easy time spotting his abnormally tall target and found Carmichael a league-high 67 times for 1,116 yards (also an NFL high) and nine touchdowns.
He also led the league that year in yards per game with 79.7.
Due to his performance, Carmichael was named a second-team All-Pro and voted to his first Pro Bowl.
Gabriel not only had it made with Carmichael’s height but with the height of receiver Don Zimmerman (6’3”) and tight end Charle Young (6’4”).
The trio was known as the “Fire High Gang” after Gabriel mentioned when discussing his teammates,
“All I have to do is fire high.”
Charle Young, charter member of the Fire High Gang and absolute stud at tight end. @Ol_TimeFootball @RetiredNFLers @FootballHistory @80sSportsNStuff @80sFootballCard @PHLEaglesNation pic.twitter.com/ySBiem7cuJ
— Eagles Over the Years (@EaglesOrtheYear) June 28, 2022
All three pass-catchers tried to outdo one another with end zone celebrations.
Carmichael was declared the winner with his “H-bomb” performance.
As much fun as 1973 was, the next few years would be rough for Carmichael.
Philadelphia won five, then seven games in McCormack’s first two years, but Carmichael’s performance didn’t stack up to his ‘73 season.
As he went from 56 receptions and eight scores in 1974 to 49 catches and seven touchdowns in 1975, Carmichael took the brunt of the heat from Eagles fans.
Even at home, he was booed when the Philly faithful didn’t think he was living up to expectations, and the negative reaction began to eat away at Carmichael.
“People jumped all over me,” he said in 1980. “They said that I dropped every ball thrown to me, that I was scared. It hurt. When I went out to play, I went out for myself and the fans. It was just like having a dog that you feed bite you. That was the time when I wanted to quit, leave Philadelphia. I didn’t think I could play there anymore.”
When Philadelphia dropped to four wins in 1975 and 1976, McCormack tried everything to get his star receiver back on track.
“Sooo, so sensitive. We try anything. Clink him, get on his back. Blow in his ear. Bench him. Start him again. I hope that maybe he can grow up,” McCormack said.
Carmichael collected 42 passes and five scores in 1976 while his confidence sunk even further.
With the Eagles languishing in the win column, the organization fired McCormack after the 1976 season and replaced him with former UCLA head coach Dick Vermeil.
Right away, the team could see Vermeil’s coaching style was part cheerleader, part firecracker.
One of the first orders of business for the new coach was to have a conversation with his tallest player.
Vermeil spent a good portion of his early days trying to build up Carmichael’s confidence.
“I don’t think Carmichael realizes what he can do, how devastating he can be,” Vermeil said.
Before the 1977 season began, Philly traded Charle Young to the LA Rams for backup quarterback Ron Jaworski.
Vermeil then inserted Jaworski as his starter, and the Eagles began to get better.
The team won five games in 1977 as Carmichael caught 46 balls and seven touchdowns.
Harold Carmichael 🦅 pic.twitter.com/0Bg6YqnPdW
— Goat Jerseys (@GoatJerseys) November 6, 2019
In 1978, he was voted to his second Pro Bowl after collecting 55 passes for eight touchdowns.
That season also saw the Eagles improve to 9-7 and receive a Wild Card loss to the Atlanta Falcons, a game where Carmichael had the first score of the contest.
The Eagles really began to soar in 1979 when they went 11-5, defeated the Chicago Bears in the Wild Card round, and then lost to the upstart Tampa Bay Buccanneers in the Divisional round.
Carmichael was voted as a second-team All-Pro for the second time as well as to his third Pro Bowl when he caught 52 passes and 11 touchdowns.
He also caught three touchdowns in the postseason.
Super Bowl XV and Carmichael’s Streak Ends
On October 8, 1972, Carmichael caught a pass against the Washington Redskins in a 14-0 loss.
His lone catch that day was one of only 20 he caught during his second year.
However, it was also the start of a pass-catching streak that Carmichael took into the final week of the 1980 season.
The receiver that Eagles fans once booed caught 127 consecutive passes from October 1972 through December of 1980, far surpassing the previous league record.
Today in 1980, Harold Carmichael’s streak of 127 consecutive games with a reception comes to an end. pic.twitter.com/SKIdhh2kzB
— 80s Sports N Stuff (@80sSportsNStuff) December 21, 2018
In Week 16 of 1980, the Dallas Cowboys kept Carmichael from catching a pass, breaking his streak.
“I don’t think anyone is going to break Harold Carmichael’s record,” said former Saints and 49ers receiver Danny Abramowicz, who held the previous NFL record for consecutive receptions at 105. “Let’s face it, Carmichael is devastating. He catches ’em high, catches ’em low, catches ’em double covered.”
Part of the reason that Carmichael didn’t catch a pass that day was due to a hard hit he took from Dallas corner Dennis Thurman in the second quarter.
The impact from Thurman limited Carmichael to only one more play the rest of the afternoon.
Although his impressive streak came to an end, Carmichael ultimately wanted to reach a different goal.
“My biggest goal is to go out with a Super Bowl ring,” said Carmichael. “If we were to get to the Super Bowl, you can erase everything about The Streak.”
True to his word, the Eagles took their 12-4 regular-season record into the 1980 playoffs and defeated the Vikings and Cowboys in consecutive weeks.
For the first time since 1960, Philadelphia was back in a championship game as the team took on the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV.
During the game, Oakland scored the first 14 points and limited Philly to just three points in the first half.
In the second half, the Raiders scored 13 more points while the Eagles found the end zone once.
On this day in 1981, the Raiders beat the Eagles 27-10 in Super Bowl XV, becoming the first wild-card team to win a Super Bowl. Jim Plunkett threw for 261 yards and three TDs en route to winning MVP. pic.twitter.com/dzADFuh6fo
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 25, 2020
The final score was 27-10, Oakland. Carmichael was held to five catches for 83 yards and missed receiving his coveted ring.
Carmichael Keeps Hauling in Passes
Even though his consecutive catch streak had come to an end, NFL defenses still couldn’t keep Carmichael from the football.
A year after catching 48 passes and nine touchdowns in 1980, Carmichael caught 61 passes for 1,028 yards and six scores in 1981.
Harold Carmichael never caught more than 67 passes in a season. If he played today, he’d be good for 110 a year. pic.twitter.com/RrWYwxJ0AW
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) September 25, 2019
His reception total that year was the second-highest total of Carmichael’s career.
“Harold’s style of play was tenacious,” said Carmichael’s friend, Jim Solano, years later. “Anytime there was a ball in the air that came his way, he felt that he had to go and get it … and he did.”
Philly’s bid for a return to the Super Bowl ended during the Wild Card round after the ‘81 season.
Carmichael caught a touchdown pass during the game, but it was not enough to keep the New York Giants from beating the Eagles 27-21.
The NFL Players’ strike limited the season to nine games in 1982 and Carmichael collected 35 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns as the Eagles fell to 3-6.
After the season, Vermeil decided to step down as head coach, citing burnout.
New coach Marion Campbell helped the franchise improve slightly to 5-11 in 1983.
Carmichael had 38 receptions for 515 yards, and three scores for the year.
Carmichael Is Released
Father Time can arrive rather quickly for NFL players.
In 1980, Carmichael went to his fourth Pro Bowl and played in a Super Bowl.
By the end of the 1983 season, the Eagles franchise thought he was past his prime.
In May of 1984, the organization waived him after 13 years.
Carmichael was then signed by the New York Jets but was released before the end of August.
The Cowboys signed him to provide receiver depth and then released him in mid-November after Carmichael played in two games and caught one pass for seven yards.
Jun 13: Retired: On this day in 1985, one-time Cowboy Harold Carmichael announced his retirement.
— Fred Goodwin (@fgoodwin) June 13, 2021
Instead of trying to continue playing, Carmichael retired.
In his 14-year career, Carmichael had 590 receptions for 8,985 yards and 79 touchdowns.
He was a four-time Pro Bowler, appeared in one Super Bowl, led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards once, and was a second-team All-Pro twice.
Carmichael was the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1980 and was later named to the league’s 1970s All-Decade Team.
He was also added to the Eagles’ Hall of Fame and the Eagles’ 75th Anniversary Team.
After retiring, Carmichael worked for over a decade in various businesses including steel fabrication, sports marketing, and as a vice president of sales for a Philadelphia area travel agency.
In 1998, he returned to the Eagles as their director of player and community relations.
Carmichael remained in that position until 2014 when he became Philly’s Fan Engagement Liaison.
On April 2, 2015, he retired again and remained with the team as an ambassador.
Then, over 30 years after Carmichael’s retirement as a player, he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020.
— Southern University Football (@GeauxJags) August 6, 2021
(He is also a member of the Louisiana and Florida Sports Halls of Fame, the SWAC Hall of Fame, and the Black College Football Hall of Fame).
During his enshrinement ceremony, Solano called Carmichael the “King of the Contested Ball” and Jaworski gave his former teammate the ultimate compliment.
“Harold has never been given credit for being a great athlete. But I’ve never seen anyone as graceful as he was. There wasn’t a better key receiver in the game,” said Jaworski.