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Carmichael goes extra yard in autobiography

October 03, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

It's debatable which is more remarkable, the life lived by Al "Hoagy" Carmichael or the hard-bound, photo-filled, 399-page, eight-pound autobiography he wrote to celebrate it.

In a wondrous example of the star-touched symmetry that typifies his life, the former Gardena High, Santa Ana College, Marine Corps, USC, NFL and AFL running back lived as a young boy in a home where Jim Thorpe had once lived, and as an adult stood in for Burt Lancaster in the 1951 film, "Jim Thorpe: All American."

Carmichael, who will turn 78 on Nov. 10, was never really a star after he left junior college, but you would never know by leafing through the book. Nor by the way he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time -- all of it documented by his late wife, Jan, who kept voluminous scrapbooks.

A ruggedly handsome man, Carmichael posed for publicity shots before the 1953 Rose Bowl with a young actress named Marilyn Monroe. Then he scored the only touchdown in the Trojans' 7-0 victory over Wisconsin, flying off to New York afterward to appear on "I've Got a Secret" with Zsa Zsa Gabor, among others. He even met his namesake, songwriter Hoagy Carmichael -- part of another publicity stunt.

Teammate Frank Gifford introduced him to the woman he later married.

With the Green Bay Packers, Carmichael played in the first game at Lambeau Field and forged lasting friendships with such Packers legends as Bart Starr, Paul Hornung and Ray Nitschke.

Less happily but no less memorably, he later was cut by a rookie coach named Vince Lombardi, though he proudly made it through what he called a "hellacious" training camp.

With the Denver Broncos, he scored the first touchdown in American Football League history. During his down time, he appeared in more than 50 movies and television shows as an actor, extra or stuntman.

And 50 years ago this week, on Oct. 7, 1956, Carmichael set an NFL record that still stands, returning a kickoff 106 yards for a touchdown in the Packers' 37-21 loss to the Chicago Bears at Green Bay.

Carmichael is so fond of the twice-matched-but-never-bettered record that he titled his autobiography "106 Yards." And judging by the reception that greeted him when he set it, he's not sure the record will ever be broken.

"When I came off the field, none of the coaches congratulated me," he said. "They were all mad because I ran it out from so deep. That's a no-no."

It wasn't until the next night, when Carmichael appeared with Coach Lisle Blackbourn on television, that Blackbourn finally acknowledged him.

"He put his arm around me and hugged me," Carmichael said. "He told me he was sorry that he hadn't come over and shook my hand at the time."

Lombardi, who arrived three years later, was a less apologetic sort.

"One time," Carmichael said, "he was drawing up plays on a chalkboard and he said, 'When I've got my back to you and I'm writing up here, I don't want any talking behind my back.' He says, 'That's disrespectful and I won't put up with it.'

"Well, somebody was talking behind us and, I'm not kidding, Lombardi swung around and threw that chalk eraser about 90 miles an hour, hit this guy who'd been talking. Lombardi says, 'I don't know who you are, a rookie or a veteran, but it doesn't matter; you're no longer on this team,' and he directed his assistants to escort the guy out. You don't think that got our attention? Everybody snapped to."

Carmichael, who played six seasons with the Packers, sensed that glory days were in the offing at Green Bay, but unfortunately they didn't include him.

Slowed by an ankle injury, he was cut early in the 1959 season.

"I felt like my world had ended," he said.

A year later, on Sept. 9, 1960, Carmichael and former Notre Dame quarterback Frank Tripucka hooked up on a 59-yard scoring pass in the Broncos' 13-10 victory over the Boston Patriots at Boston -- the first touchdown in AFL history.

"It was kind of ironic," Carmichael said, "a USC man catching a touchdown pass from a Notre Dame quarterback."

Carmichael, who never made more than $14,000 in pro football, retired after the 1961 season and continued working in Hollywood until moving to Palm Desert in 1983. In 1974, he was inducted in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. Starr, his former teammate, called him "the most gifted multiple-back" of the 1950s.

A father of three and grandfather of 10, Carmichael began writing his memoirs in 1997, at the urging of his wife, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. His son, Chris, who owns a publishing company, found her old scrapbooks in storage and couldn't believe the treasure trove he'd stumbled upon. He published the book, which is chockfull of old stories and photos offering a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era, calling it "a labor of love."

It shows.

One tidbit that wasn't included: Of his touchdown reception in the 1953 Rose Bowl, delivered by substitute quarterback Rudy Bukich, Carmichael said, "It was a rising pass and, just between you and me, I almost dropped it."

But of course he didn't.

He's got photographic evidence.

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