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Carlos recalls pro football playing days

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Mike Beacom
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Posted Nov. 18, 2011 @ 12:57 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

By 1970, John Carlos was ready for change. Ever since he and Tommie Smith had raised their fists in protest of racial injustice at the Mexico City Olympic Games two years earlier, Carlos had been made to feel unwanted. Many called him un-American. The support he did receive back home didn't pay the bills, and Carlos believed he had done all he possibly could do in track and field. The NFL seemed like a good place to turn. After all, "How hard could it be to catch a football?" he wondered. He soon learned it was much more difficult than he imagined.

"My hands were boxer's hands, like Roberto Duran," Carlos explains in The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World. "But Roberto Duran was called "the hands of stone," remember, and nobody wants a wide receiver with hands of stone." Philadelphia hadn't paid much attention to Carlos' hands. All the front office took note of was his world-class speed. The Eagles selected him with their 15th-round pick in the 1970 NFL draft (pick No. 371).

The NFL's fascination with speed guys at the time stemmed from Dallas' successful experiment with 1964 Olympian Bob Hayes. In each of his first four NFL seasons Hayes had scored double-digit touchdowns. But, as Carlos points out, Hayes had played football in high school and at Florida A&M; Carlos' only experiences came on the sandlots where he grew up.

At one point, the Cowboys approached Carlos about lining up opposite from Hayes. Kansas City and Oakland showed interest, too. But, he says, "Philadelphia had me and wasn't going to let me go."

The social pressures and criticism that had followed him home from Mexico City were not present in the NFL, says Carlos. He didn't experience racism. In the months leading up to the 1970 NFL season he was just another player trying to make the final cut. "I didn't have any trouble, in fact, other than the whole rookie thing where they ask you to jump on a table and sing," he says. "I wasn't about any of that."

In training camp the following year, Carlos' NFL dreams died. He was running a curl pattern when his knee stuck in Philadelphia's artificial turf. Carlos heard the pop. After running a few more patterns, he threw a bag of ice on it. The next day it was immobile, and eventually Carlos was encouraged to have the knee operated on. The doctors who performed the surgery simply clipped out the damaged ligaments. "At that time, (doctors) didn't have the skills and knowledge to realize they could let it bond back together. Eventually the bone just eats the cartilage away, and then it's just bone on bone." Later in life it required Carlos to have knee replacement surgery, which has resulted in severe back pain.

If the injury hadn't ended Carlos' NFL career, the arrival of Harold Carmichael in 1971 would have. Carlos recalls the 6-foot-8, 225-pound seventh-round draft choice as "a young guy, ambitious for the game." Carmichael, like most rookies, was worried about whether he would make the team. Carlos knew Carmichael was too talented to get cut. "I told him, 'Man, before they cut you I'd walk out of camp.' " During their brief time together, Carlos helped Carmichael work on his speed, and Carmichael helped Carlos polish up his route running.

After surgery, Carlos signed a guaranteed contract with the Montreal Alouettes, but he didn't last long in the Canadian Football League. Eventually his life fell on harder times, and his actions in Mexico City impacted everything around him for years.

Today, John Carlos continues to speak about the statement he and Smith made more the four decades ago. The public's image of the two men has changed over time, and in 2008 they were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. The book, written with the help of author Dave Zirin, has given Carlos an opportunity to share his experiences.

"I think the main reason I wanted to do the book at this particular time is that 43 years had gone by and I was realizing that I was getting old. I wanted to get things out while I still had a fresh memory. More than anything, I wanted to leave my words for my kids and my grandkids. So many things have been written and said about John Carlos, but most of the people didn't talk to me or interview me."

Looking back on his brief time in the NFL, Carlos has no regrets. "I didn't do as well as I would have liked to, but it was a great experience," he says.


Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac

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