Never before has a man come across our paths like the great Merlin Olsen, who passed away at the age of 69 years old yesterday. He was more than a gridiron great who blessed viewers with his abilities on the field as a Pro Bowl player who became the leader of the greatest defensive line in NFL history, “The Fearsome Foursome”.
Merlin wasn’t done entertaining America. Even long before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982,. He had become a star actor on television in 1977 in the hit series “Little House on the Prairie”, then starred in his own series called “Father Murphy”.
During this time, he became a color commentator during NFL games with play by play announcer Dick Enberg. The two became fast friends and they would pair together on the NBC Network throughout the 1980’s. Enberg would voice over a video tribute to his friend during a celebration of his life at a Utah State University event last year. He then starred in another show called “Aarons Way” in 1988, then transitioned to commercials. He also hosted multiple telethons benefiting children.
To understand the journey is to remember the beginnings. Born as one of nine children in a family in Utah in 1940, athletics was an important part of the Olsen household. Football was a sport that three of the Olsen boys played best. Merlin and his younger brothers Phil and Orrin all would make it to the NFL, playing together in 1976, making it one of the very few times that three brothers participated in a professional sport at the same time. Phil played with Merlin on the same team from 1971 to 1974.
Merlin attended Utah State University in college, as would Phil later on. Orrin attended Brigham Young University and their brother Clark had a son, Hans, who would later play football for BYU as well. Hans is now a renowned broadcast journalist in the Provo, Utah area.
At Utah State, Merlin quickly became a star. He was named All-Conference twice and All-American in his senior season. That year saw the Aggies lead the nation in run defense, giving up a paltry 50.8 yards per game. This allowed the team to finish ranked tenth, the only time in school history they reached a ranking that high. Merlin was named the winner of the Outland trophy after a stellar season.
He then went on to play in the East-West Shrine Game, and was named MVP. He would later be inducted into the games Hall of Fame, as well as the 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team. His exploits at Utah State are so legendary that they named their football field after him and will soon have a bronze statue of his likeness standing at the entrance of the stadium.
His jersey was retired by the school, as was Phil Olsen’s, and he is a member of the Utah’s Sports Hall of Fame, both the Utah State University Sports Hall of Fame and All-Century Football Team, All-Academic All-America Hall of Fame, and is a member of the Newspaper Enterprise Association All-Time All-America Team. He was also number one of the State of Utah’s Top 50 Athletes of the Century by Sports Illustrated. Phil was listed as the 43rd best. Merlin is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
The Los Angeles Rams drafted him in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft, the third player chosen overall, becoming the first player ever from Utah State drafted in the first round in the NFL. The Denver Broncos made him the second player chosen in the first round of their leagues draft, but Olsen chose the Rams because the financial expert that he was thought it a fiscally more sound strategy to choose the Rams. He signed a contact for $50,000 in an era where the average salary was $12,000.
He immediately became a one man wrecking crew in the NFL, standing out as soon as he entered the world of professional football. He was named NFL Rookie of the Y.ear and was selected to the first of his 14 consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. No other Ram has appeared in more Pro Bowls and his five First Team All-Pro honors is tied as the most ever in team history.
No other player in NFL history has ever gone to the Pro Bowl in the first 14 years of their career, and his overall total has been matched only by Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. He also won the Pro Bowl MVP Award in 1968.
He was lined up on the left side next to Deacon Jones. The two fed off each others excellence, forcing opponents not to be able to double team either. Lamar Lundy played defensive end from the right side, and Rosey Grier completed the quartet team in 1963. The Fearsome Foursome was born and soon was dominating the NFL.
Hall of Fame head coach George Allen was hired by the Rams in 1966, and the groups fortunes began to change upon the arrival of the defensive expert. When Grier had a career ending injury in the 1967 preseason, Allen acquired Hall of Famer Roger Brown to replace him. The unit dominated the NFL again, finishing first in the league in defense.
They continued their excellence throughout the 1960’s and even added Coy Bacon to the unit. Bacon started after Brown had a injury issues, and Diron Talbert replaced the retired Lundy. The group continued their excellence, frequently placing multiple players from the unit into the Pro Bowl. Jones, Brown, Bacon, Lundy, and Grier all made the Pro Bowl as members of the Rams.
The one constant was Olsen. Even after the rest of the rest of his excellent unit retired or departed for other teams, he stayed in Los Angeles and kept leading the way. When Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood joined the team in 1971, he was given sage advice buy their leader. ” Push to be great not just on every play, but with every heartbeat.”
Youngblood says “When you stop and think of Merlin on the field, he accomplished things that will never be accomplished again. If it hadn’t been for Merlin Olsen, I wouldn’t have turned out to be the football player that he helped mold and make.”
He retired after the 1976 season, the only year he failed to make the Pro Bowl. He was a first time inductee into Canton. His list of awards is astounding, and surely will never be duplicated again. When he was named NFL MVP in 1974, he accepted it “on behalf of all who toil in the NFL trenches”.
He is a member of both the NFL’s 1960’s and 1970’s All-Decade Teams, is a member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and was ranked number 25 on The Sporting News’ list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He has also won the Walter Camp Man of the Year Award, and the NFL Alumni Career Achievement Award.
The Rams retired his jersey number and he was placed in the Saint Louis Ring of Honor even though he played his entire career in Los Angeles. He is also a member of the California Sports Hall of Fame, and was named Athlete of the Century for the state of Utah. The man must have had dozens of trophy cases to attempt to hold all of the accolades he achieved.
His charity work perhaps passes his athletic achievements. He was a true hero to countless people, and was especially dedicated to children. A father of three children and a grandfather of four, Olsen had an acute understanding of family and love for humanity.
He is still beloved and respected by his teammates. I was coincidentally working on a article on the 1967 Rams, and the Rams I was able to talk to all stated how important Merlin was to the team. I had just contacted Hans about talking to Merlin yesterday about the team, but this was unfortunately an event that never took place.
“He was ferocious and fearless on the football field and then the other probably more important aspect of his personality was he was a true gentleman,”Youngblood said. “We all know what a wonderful, tremendous football player he was, but he was so much more than that.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released this statement, “He was extraordinary person, friend and football player. He cared deeply about people, especially those that shared the game of football with him. Merlin was a larger-than-life person, literally and figuratively, and leaves an enormously positive legacy.”
A legacy that will live on for decades more than just in the NFL record books or TV re-runs. This soft-spoken giant of a man has left us a legacy booming, fertile, and everlasting. Just to thank him would be a vast understatement, but would be gracious accepted by a true hero whose kindness had no boundaries.