Labeled fierce for his relentless play as a Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Merlin Olsen was also gentle enough for a role on one of television’s most wholesome shows and as a spokesman in a well-known flower ad campaign.
Olsen’s deep, rich voice and sincerity made him a success both as an actor and in the broadcast booth, where he offered insights to the game he played so well for so long. Olsen died early Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 69. "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," said fellow Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood, Olsen’s teammate with the Rams in Los Angeles. "We all know what a wonderful, tremendous football player he was, but he was so much more than that."
Whether it was his role in the Rams’ "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line or the characters he played on "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy," Olsen had the versatility to break through to any audience. He was even the spokesman for a well-known FTD ad campaign in the 1980s — a 6-foot-5 giant pitching flower bouquets.
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Utah State, Olsen’s alma mater, said he died outside of Los Angeles. He was diagnosed last year with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining often linked to asbestos. He filed a lawsuit last year, claiming he contracted the disease as a result of being exposed to asbestos on construction sites where he worked as a child and young adult.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement lauding Olsen as an "extraordinary person, friend and football player."
"He cared deeply about people, especially those that shared the game of football with him," Goodell said. "Merlin was a larger-than-life person, literally and figuratively, and leaves an enormously positive legacy."
Olsen was an All-American at Utah State and a first-round draft pick of the Los Angles Rams in 1962.
He joined Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier on the Rams’ storied "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line known for either stopping or knocking backward whatever offenses it faced. The Rams set an NFL record for the fewest yards allowed during a 14-game season in 1968. Youngblood joined the Rams as a rookie in 1971, backing up Jones as Olsen continued to anchor the other side of the line. Youngblood remembered Olsen telling him as a young player to push to be great not just on every play, but with "every heartbeat."
"When you stop and think of Merlin on the field, he accomplished things that will never be accomplished again," Youngblood said. "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."
Former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer remembered in his 1968 book "Instant Replay," co-written with late sportswriter and broadcaster Dick Schaap, dreading going up against Olsen.
"I’ll be facing Merlin Olsen, and that’s definitely work, not fun," Kramer wrote. "Merlin never lets up. He’ll run right over you no matter what the score is."
Olsen was rookie of the year for the Rams in 1962 and is still the Rams’ all-time leader in career tackles with 915. He was named to 14 consecutive Pro Bowls, a string that started his rookie year.
"Merlin Olsen is one of the best players in the history of the NFL," Rams general manager Billy Devaney said in a statement released by the team Thursday afternoon. "His passing is a tremendous loss for the Rams<. He will always be remembered as an ambassador for the organization as well as the National Football League."
After football, Olsen played the role of Jonathan Garvey, friend to Michael Landon’s Charles Ingalls, on "Little House." Olsen later starred in his own series, "Father Murphy," from 1981 to 1983 and the short-lived "Aaron’s Way" in 1988.
He also stayed in the game as a broadcaster. Olsen wasn’t just some former player who knew football and would weave tales of his playing days into the broadcast. He was well-spoken and smart. The son of a former school teacher, Olsen graduated summa cum laude at Utah State with a degree in economics and earned a master’s in economics in between his 15 NFL seasons.
Olsen was a consensus All-American at Utah State and won the 1961 Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman. The Rams drafted Olsen third overall in 1962 and he spent the next 15 years with the team before retiring in 1976.
"I love the game of football," Olsen said in his Hall of Fame induction speech. "There was some special magic out on that piece of grass out there on that field. And win or lose when I came off that field, it was always coming down. I am sure that the thing I miss most about the game is the people, the very special people and those incredible highs and lows."
Utah State honored Olsen in December by naming the football field at Romney Stadium "Merlin Olsen Field." Because of his illness, Olsen’s alma mater didn’t want to wait until football season and made the announcement during halftime of a basketball game.
Olsen was well enough to attend, but did not speak at the event. He stood and smiled as he waved to fans during a standing ovation and chants of "Merlin Olsen!" and "Aggie Legend!"
Utah State is also planning a statue of Olsen at the southeast corner of the stadium.
The Rams also honored Olsen during a game Dec. 20, with a video tribute narrated by Dick Enberg, Olsen’s longtime broadcast partner. Olsen did not attend because of his health. His name was already part of the Ring of Fame inside the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis along with other franchise standouts.
He was voted NFC defensive lineman of the year in 1973 and the NFL MVP in 1974, and was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. Brothers Phil and Orrin also played in the NFL.
Olsen is survived by his wife, Susan, and three children. There was no word Thursday on funeral arrangements.