Packers Hall of Famer Al Carmichael: Putting the ‘Special’ in Special Teams
He is Albert “Al” Rienhold Carmichael.
While the Green Bay Packers of the 1950s didn’t win often — 39 regular-season victories — they did return kicks. Their 890 returns (punts and kickoffs combined) were the most of the decade.
Carmichael was central to this activity. He took back 153 kickoffs and 100 punts during his six years in Green Bay, and his 253 combined returns remains a franchise record more than a half century after he left the team.
“That comes as a surprise to me to be honest with you,” said Carmichael. “I know there was a lot of them, but I didn’t realize it was that much.”
Carmichael was the Packers No. 1 draft choice in 1953. He was drafted to bolster a running game that was among the least productive in the NFL during the two years before his arrival.
Once on the roster, Carmichael impacted the running game less than one might expect from a back chosen seventh overall. His 199 yards rushing as a rookie was a career best (he tied that number in 1956), and he never finished higher than third on the team in yards gained on the ground.
His bailiwick was the return game. During the time he played with the Packers (1953-58), he lugged back more kicks than anyone in the league.
According to Carmichael, he got his start during the last preseason game of 1953. It was a night-time affair against the powerful Cleveland Browns, and he was sent in after an injury shelved Green Bay’s regular returner.
Waiting downfield was Horace Gillom, the strong-legged punter who led the league with a 45.7-yard per average in 1952. Preseason or not, Gillom was in fine form.
“He (Gillom) kicked that ball and I’m not kidding you, the lights up above were on and it went out higher than the lights,” recalled Carmichael, “And it disappeared then came back into the stadium you might say, eyesight-wise, and I got under it. I caught it and just as I caught it – it went up so high – they were there waiting for me to catch it.”
That Carmichael decided against a fair catch and got crushed didn’t seem to matter. Once league play began, he was the man, leading the team with 20 punt and 26 kickoff returns.
A year later, Carmichael was joined by another first-round draft choice: Veryl Switzer. For two seasons the duo fielded the vast majority of kicks sent Green Bay’s way.
“Switzer was very good at (returning) both (kickoffs and punts) and, matter of fact, he was good or better than I was at punt returns,” Carmichael said. “He ran back a couple of good long ones when he was there, the few years he played there.”
At times, Switzer and Carmichael were both sent deep to receive kickoffs. When that happened, one was expected to block for the other.
Sometimes decisions had to be made regarding whom to block. Given a choice between two charging Bears, Carmichael opted for the smaller man, and his teammate paid the price.
“The other gentleman that I didn’t take because he was so big, he powdered poor Switzer. I felt so terrible about that. That was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made all of the years I played.”
Switzer departed after the 1955 season. With him gone, Carmichael led the team in both number of punts and kickoffs returned in each of three straight seasons (1956-58).
Against the Bears in week 2 of the 1956 season, Carmichael set sail on a 106-yard kickoff return. It remained the NFL record for 51 years.
According to Carmichael, anger helped fuel the return. Earlier an assistant coach had questioned Carmichael’s effort and Carmichael, his knee taped because of injury, decided to ignore the standing order to down any kick that landed in the end zone. He was determined to return the kick regardless of where it landed, even after the player sent deep with him reminded him of the directive.
“They kicked off and I caught the ball — I knew it was pretty deep,” admitted Carmichael. “We had a left return and I started up the middle like we’re supposed to, and then I broke out to the left. And it opened up, and I got some good blocks and it was one of these kickoff returns that everything clicked. And the next thing I know, I was in the open — I couldn’t believe it myself — so I just took off from that point. And that’s how that hundred and six came about.”
The record held until September of 2007 when the Patriots’ Ellis Hobbs returned one 108 yards.
“They contacted me, by the way, and flew me back there to Arizona for the Super Bowl,” Carmichael said. “And I went back there for a photo op with Ellis Hobbs. He’s really a nice kid. He really impressed me. I thought the world of him.”
Carmichael’s career with the Packers came to a surprising end in August 1959. Head coach Vince Lombardi placed the veteran on waivers after the second preseason game.
A high ankle sprain contributed to his release, according to Carmichael.
“Not knowing how to handle it (the sprain), they injected it with Novocain — in my ankle — and it deadened my leg up to my knee. It was like walking on a stump. I couldn’t play that way.”
Carmichael played two seasons with the Denver Broncos (1960-61). He also appeared as a gladiator in Spartacus, the 1960 film starring Kirk Douglas.
“I knew that the movie business is so sporadic that, you know, some days you work; some you wouldn’t, “Carmichael said. “It wasn’t a way to go if you had a family and I had the beginning of a young family, so I went into real estate and I stayed in real estate for 20-some-odd years.”
In 2001, Carmichael lost his wife, Jan, to breast cancer. During her illness, he began work on a book about his life, 106 Yards which was published by his son’s company in 2006.
Carmichael has remarried, and he and his wife, Barbara, live in Palm Desert, California.
Many Happy Returns
Packers players who returned the most combined kicks (kickoffs and punts) in team history.
Player, Years Total Returns Punts Kickoffs
Al Carmichael, 1953-58 253 100 153
Steve Odom, 1974-79 243 64 179
Willie Wood, 1960-71 190 187 3
Antonio Chatman, 2003-05 166 110 56
Billy Grimes, 1950-52 130 63 67
Eric Goska is a freelance writer and statistics fanatic, who writes a ‘By the Numbers’ column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette about the Packers. Three editions of his book, Packer Legends in Facts, were published in the 1990s. In 2002 and 2003 the statistical encyclopedia was reworked and released under the title A Measure of Greatness.