As classic matchups go, nothing the Philadelphia Eagles have faced on the playing field this season could surpass the diverting little encounter that took place in their training room at Veterans Stadium the other day. There, stretched out on one of the massage tables with the Eagles' wounded, was no less a specimen of celebrity beefcake than John Travolta, undergoing treatment for a sprained ankle he had suffered while filming a new movie in the city. And there, standing before the actor like the aspiring costars of David and Goliath Meet the Sweathog, were Jim Solano, a 5'5" player's agent sporting the requisite pinkie ring, and one of his clients, a 6'8" giant wearing nothing but a small towel and a very large smile.
Pointing at his towering companion like an attorney for the defense, Solano demanded of Travolta, "Can you identify this famous man?" Travolta obviously couldn't and, slipping into the play-it-dumb character of Vinnie Barbarino, he pleaded, "Hey, wow, c'mon, you guys, what is this? Some sort of a setup?"
No, merely a bet devised by the grinning giant—otherwise known as Harold Carmichael, wide receiver—to prove that his recognition level barely extends beyond Penn Square, much less to Hollywood and Vine. As it happened, Travolta fared no better when Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil passed by and, casting a suspicious eye at the No. 1 heartthrob of teeny-boppers everywhere, asked an aide, "Who's that strange man talking to Carmichael?"
If there is any moral to this quaint interlude in the life and violent times of Harold Carmichael, he says it is this: in the fame game, setting Eagle and NFL records, playing in three Pro Bowls and being the tallest and, at an estimated $220,000 a year plus $70,000 in bonuses, reportedly the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL, isn't enough.
Just as Travolta needs a showcase like Saturday Night Fever, Carmichael contends that "a receiver needs to play in the Super Bowl before people will sit up and take notice." He should know: though he has averaged 45 receptions and seven touchdowns a season for nearly a decade, though he has caught at least one pass in a record 126 straight games, and though he has scored more TDs than either Lynn Swann or Drew Pearson over the past six seasons, they are far more celebrated, he says, "because I've never played in a Super Bowl and they have. That's it. Once you do that, millions see you on TV and read about you. The Eagles in the past were just another struggling team. That's a big part of it."
The Eagles of the present, who are 11-3 this season and tied with Dallas for first place in the NFC East, are another matter. So is the local recognition factor. At least now when Carmichael moves around town he doesn't have to suffer the little slights his imposing presence used to invite.
Passerby: "Don't tell me. You're a pro basketball player. Dr. J of the 76ers, right?"
Carmichael: "No, I'm a jockey."
There was a time in his 10-year NFL career—one in which he has had five head coaches, 32 assistant coaches and six starting quarterbacks while catching 453 passes for 6,882 yards and 66 touchdowns—when Carmichael welcomed the anonymity, when the labels of "hotdog" and "butterfingers" so plagued him he was ready to flee town. "I was always trying to hide then," he says, "which is not easy when you're 6'8"."
But now there is no hiding. There is only Carmichael's guiding credo: "Play it one game at a time."
Don't wince. In Philadelphia that tired old locker-room clichè has become a rallying cry as game after battering game, season after endless season, Carmichael builds an NFL career record so vast in scope and achievement it seems to lead a charmed life of its very own. At Veterans Stadium it is referred to simply as The Streak, that unbroken chain Carmichael began forging before any of the other Eagles were in residence and that promises to endure long after all of them have departed.
The origins of The Streak are so far removed, in fact, that Carmichael has no recollection of the play that started it all. The records show, however, that it occurred on Oct. 8, 1972. As it developed, the only sure thing on that Sunday was that the winless Eagles would lose again. And so they did, 14-0 to the Washington Redskins in a game that proved memorable solely because an unheralded young receiver out of Southern University named Harold Carmichael caught one pass.
Last Sunday at the Vet, Carmichael prolonged his streak to 126 games when he caught four passes in the Eagles' 20-17 loss to Atlanta. The magnitude of Carmichael's streak—Travolta, take note—is such that no receiver in NFL history, not Don Hutson, Raymond Berry nor any of the Swanns and Pearsons before or since, has come close to matching it.
Carmichael claims that the best way to keep The Streak streaking is to ignore it. "I don't worry about it," he says. "My primary job is to catch passes, and if I do my job, The Streak will take care of itself." Nonetheless, as it has grown, so too has the burden of sustaining it. "This isn't just any record," says Danny Abramowicz, the receiver for the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers who set the previous mark of 105 before retiring in 1974. "A lot of records, some guy can have a great game and never do anything again. But this one, you have to do it day in and day out. You have to stay healthy. If you get hurt after one play, it's broken."
Considering the other problems today's receivers must contend with—gang coverage, rotating zones, artificial turf, longer seasons and bigger, faster defensive backs, not to mention weather variables and just plain bad luck—Abramowicz concludes, "I don't think anyone is going to break Harold Carmichael's record. Let's face it, Carmichael is devastating. He catches 'em high, catches 'em low, catches 'em double covered."
Certainly no one disputes the claim that Carmichael wears on one of his T shirts: TALLEST TARGET IN TOWN. Especially not Eagle Quarterback Ron Jaworski; in the heat of a heavy pass rush, he says, finding Harold is as easy as "throwing to a giraffe in a cherry picker." Trouble is, says Carmichael, "I'm just as big a target for the defense, too. They don't have to search for me. It's not like I get lost like a lot of those other receivers. I'm easier to pick out."
And gang up on with double and triple coverage. While that tactic tends to free the Eagles' other top pass receivers—Charles Smith, Keith Krepfle and Wilbert Montgomery coming out of the backfield—it also means that in many games the tallest target has only five or so passes thrown his way. "The multiple coverage makes it tough to get the ball," Carmichael admits. "I've faced all kinds—in and out, short and long, linebackers over my head. It's tough. Those guys are like nagging flies."
On 17 different occasions during The Streak, in fact, the swarm has held Carmichael to one catch. His closest call came last season when the Redskins' rangiest defensive back, 6'4" Joe Lavender, played him man to man and a freelancer or two covered him long. On Carmichael like a Siamese twin, Lavender had a shutout going until deep into the fourth quarter. Then, with just five minutes remaining, Carmichael slipped free long enough to grab a 26-yard "streak keeper."
Was Vermeil aware that The Streak was in jeopardy. "Heck yes," he says. "It's a very significant record."
In a similar situation, would he consider throwing a quick dump pass to Carmichael to keep The Streak alive? "Damn right I would," he says. "If you're going to throw the ball, why not throw it to your best receiver?"
Like, say, on a Quick 444 Stop, a play that calls for Carmichael to take one step forward, two steps back and then get the ball. Says Vermeil, "We get into that formation just for him because he's such a strong, physical runner. It's just a quick screen, but it's damn near surefire." Jaworski says, "If it boils down to a situation where he needs a catch, we'll get him the ball some way."
It came to that just three weeks ago when Lavender & Co. again blanked Carmichael through three quarters. Up by 21 points early in the final quarter, the Eagles could risk throwing into the crowd of hit men who were escorting Carmichael across the middle, and he responded with a reception for an 11-yard gain. PHEW; exclaimed the Philadelphia Journal. HAROLD KEEPS STREAK ALIVE.
"I'm coached not to throw into double coverage," says Jaworski. "But Coach Vermeil sent the play in and said, 'Stick it in there to Harold no matter what the coverage.' So I was happy to oblige. Hey, I'm much more aware of The Streak than Harold is. I sure wouldn't want to be the guy to snap The Streak by not getting the ball to him."
There are a lot of gunslingers who want to be the Guy Who Snapped the Streak. "The younger defensive backs, they're the ones anxious to get the rep, be the one who stops you," says Carmichael. "And they let you know it, saying, 'We're gonna shut you out today, Carmichael. We're gonna kick your butt.' Stuff like that." He replies not, figuring that the best squelcher is a timely reception. "That usually shuts them up."
Now if only all those other well-meaning folks would hush up about how much easier and more effective it would be if Jaworski would forget the hand-off business and just play toss with Gulliver all afternoon. The Eagles do have a play they call Geronimo. "It's a desperation thing," Jaworski says. "The receivers run to a designated area and I just heave it out there as high as I can and hope something happens. It can work, especially when you have somebody like Harold down there. It's like a jump ball in basketball and, with his height, he can make things happen."
Then there's the Alley Oop. A deadly efficient play inside the 10-yard line, it calls for Jaworski to lob the ball into the end zone and for Carmichael to demonstrate why they call football a game of inches. In full leap, Harold cuts an equally impressive figure in the air on the quick sideline patterns.
The problem is, those wily defenders like to do some fancy cutting of their own down around the knees, which explains why the Eagles don't throw the high pass to Carmichael 28 times a game. "Occasionally, you can do it," says Jaworski, "but any more than occasionally and Harold will be spending most of his time in the hospital."
In deference to his health, Carmichael hastens to add, "If we threw the Alley Oop all game long, I wouldn't be able to get up. People don't notice those defensive guys undercutting you, going for the knees, hitting on you. Plus, the lob pass is the riskiest of all. The defense has time to react, go for the ball, get a deflection. Spare me. I want to play the next down."
As it is, with more teams practicing the "Sequoia ax," a defensive ploy specifically designed to chop Carmichael down to size, he feels unnaturally "blessed" to have survived this long. Even so, the hurts are such that he and his wife, Bea, have been thinking about selling their two-story home in Cherry Hill, N.J. and finding something on one level. "After a game, when I'm sore, it's tough getting up and down those steps," he says.
Like all pro receivers, Carmichael has the cherished "good hands." Not the good hands of the Allstate Insurance people; one look and Allstate would never underwrite them. They are bumpy hands, bent, scraped and so "achy" because of the various cracked bones, bruised ligaments and dislocated fingers Carmichael has suffered over the years that he sometimes has trouble wringing out a washcloth. He also shies away from shaking hands; having once been broken, the joint of his right thumb is almost as big as a golf ball, and still sensitive. "I don't know," Carmichael says, "I always seem to be banging my fingers on somebody's helmet."
And they are huge hands, measuring 9½" from the palms to the tips of his middle fingers. Indeed, when Carmichael makes the one-handed catch he calls The Stab, he resembles a man plucking a lemon from a tree. "They're my living," he says, studying his hands as if they were curious objets d'art. And because they are, in a way, he has lately taken to wearing protective "catcher's mitts," golf gloves swabbed with stickum.
Jaworski is called the Polish Rifle for good reason, and while the gloves may not take all of the sting out of his high hard one, Carmichael prefers the "stiff ball" to the soft. "Helps me concentrate, stay alert," he says. "When Ronnie throws, you have to get your head around quicker. If you don't, he'll take it off."
As for the linebackers who practice another kind of beheading ritual when he cuts across the middle, Carmichael isn't without recourse. Unlike most wide receivers, he loves to block. And whether he is "putting the blade" on opponents with his scythelike forearms or throwing the full force of his 225 pounds into a cross-body block, he seems to really believe that it's better to give than to receive. Averaging two knock-down blocks a game, he is the subject of a training film that Eagle coaches show to rookies for inspirational purposes. Vermeil says, "Harold blocks so well we often use him as a second tight end. I've seen him dump linebackers, I mean cut them down. He can really uncoil, I'll tell you."
For all his Iron Man ways, though, Carmichael wears his heart on his 39-inch sleeve. "His big weakness is that when things go badly, he pouts, gets down on himself," says Vermeil. "He feels he's not living up to his teammates' expectations."
Worse, Carmichael feels that he must live down the supposed stigma that goes with being the "tallest Eagle that flies." He says, "I really don't think that a man's size determines his ability. If being big is all it takes, then why don't more guys quit basketball and take up football? People have been coming up to me for years, saying, 'Look at your hands, look at how tall you are. You should catch every pass that's thrown at you.' Well it's not that easy. It looks like it should be. I know that. But anybody who thinks it's easy never played this game.
"I really believe height makes no difference. I know people are going to say that's silly. Sure, I use my size to shield myself whenever I can, but there are only about a half dozen times in an entire season when my height has been the difference between catching a pass and not catching it. There's so much more involved. You still have to run your routes correctly, beat great athletes and have the ball thrown where you can catch it.
"I can't help my height. I'm not out there because I'm 6'8". I worked hard for this. So did the guys on the other side. People forget about them. They get paid, too. People don't see them knocking my arms, stripping the ball away. My height advantage unfair? Not when they're hitting me."
It was a band master who laid the first licks on Carmichael, in Jacksonville, Fla. His mother, who recalls that Harold was of ordinary height "and then one night he just jumped up," insisted that he play the trombone, which he did, "poorly," he recalls. "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."
In high school, as a 6'6" quarterback and wide receiver on the "worst team in our school's history," Carmichael quite literally reached out and grabbed the only college scholarship offer that came his way. "We were throwing the ball around the gym one afternoon and a buddy of mine uncorked the wildest pass you ever saw," he says. "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."
On the theory that anyone his size must be either a basketball center or a tight end, Carmichael was assigned to both positions at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Though he spent more time blocking than running pass patterns in his senior year, he expected that his size and his 4.7 speed would serve him well in the 1971 NFL draft. "I was thinking maybe third round and $30,000 a year and a Lincoln Continental," he says. When the Eagles finally came calling, it was the seventh round, $13,500 and a Buick Electra.
Carmichael spent his first two seasons with the Eagles as a backup wide receiver and tight end. He didn't begin to refine his talents until 1973, when he became a fulltime starter and a charter member of the Fire High Gang. With Quarterback Roman Gabriel doing the firing, Carmichael teamed with Charle Young and Don Zimmerman, both in the 6'4" range, to form an unholy troika of receivers who would go to any heights to make their presence felt. Each tried to outdo the others with all manner of windmilling spikes and end-zone theatrics, a contest that the "H-Bomb," as Carmichael was called in those days, won in a walk.
Or, more precisely, a strut. One day, when he broke free and caught a pass with 40 yards of clear sailing ahead, Carmichael jubilantly held the ball aloft in one hand and then, for the pièce de rèsistance, turned around and strutted the last 10 yards backward. When they struck the set at Veterans Stadium that season, Carmichael was the league's leading receiver with 67 receptions.
Expected to repeat in 1974, he struggled under that burden and his receptions fell off to 56. But, he was playing the role of super receiver with flair, tooling around in a fire-engine-red Coupe de Ville with opera windows shaped like footballs and the license plate VIRGO 17—his zodiac sign and jersey number. He made the disco scene decked out in wide-brimmed hats, maxi coats and stacked heels that pushed his height over 7 feet.
Inevitably, there was talk that Carmichael's partying was affecting his game, especially in 1975, when the Eagles stumbled through a woeful 4-10 season. "When things go bad, people think that's the reason—he was out all night," Carmichael says. "There were times when I was out all night, but most were Mondays, and we had Tuesdays off. A majority of the young players in the league go through that kind of period, and I was no different."
As the Eagles' woes worsened, the fans vented their frustrations on the tallest target. For the first time, Carmichael heard boos from the stands. Signs were held up: CARMICHAEL COULDN'T CATCH A COLD. "People jumped all over me," he says. "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."
His confidence shaken, Carmichael's receptions slipped to 49 in 1975. "Nobody knew exactly what was going on with me, how much I was trying to work," he says. "That might have been my problem. I'd drop a ball, and I'd wonder if I'm doing my steps right, and there'd be 70,000 fans booing me—and I'd drop another one."
At the time, Eagle Coach Mike McCormack said of Carmichael, "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." Enter Dick Vermeil in 1976. "I don't think Carmichael realizes what he can do, how devastating he can be," Vermeil said.
Thinking positively, Carmichael has since become a symbol of the resurgence of the Eagles. He is a new man. No big mystery, he says. "You get older. You mature a lot. Everybody has to do it sometime." Nevertheless, Carmichael was hurried along by five significant events in his life. He got married ("No. sports fans," the Journal reported, "Carmichael did not drop the ring"). He fathered a son, Lee, now 20 months. He was elected team captain. He became active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And he signed with the Eagles through 1982, becoming their highest-paid player.
What's left? "My biggest goal is to go out with a Super Bowl ring," says Carmichael. "If we were to get to the Super Bowl, you can erase everything about The Streak." And if the tallest target were to score a touchdown in the big game? Well, he has this fantasy. "If I score," he vows, "I'm going to throw the ball out!" Out? "Yes, you know, over the wall, out of the stadium."
Carmichael has been practicing. Known for his prodigious arm, he can throw the ball 50 yards underhand and 35 yards behind his back. "I threw one 105 yards in college," he says, "and I can still put it out there 90, 95 even now."
Regrettably, the fantasy failed to take into account the fact that this year's game—Super Bowl XV—will be played in the Superdome, which has no walls to throw over. So Carmichael has revised his throw. If he scores a touchdown on Super Sunday, he says, he will wheel and throw the Ultimate All-Time Reverse Spike into the opposite end zone.
Watch for it, America. And you too, Travolta.