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Former Utah State Aggie great Merlin Olsen dies

Published: Friday, March 12 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Former Utah State star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and his wife, Susan, left, walk off the court after USU announced it is renaming the football field Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium during halftime of the Utah State and St. Mary's game in the Spectrum in Logan Dec. 5. Merlin Olsen died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Former Utah State star and Pro Football Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and his wife, Susan, left, walk off the court after USU announced it is renaming the football field Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium during halftime of the Utah State and St. Mary's game in the Spectrum in Logan Dec. 5. Merlin Olsen died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

Born, raised and loved in Logan, Merlin Olsen was the iconic Aggie.

A Logan High grad and an All-American football player at Utah State, Olsen went on to be a 14-time Pro Bowl player in the NFL and is enshrined in both the pro and college football halls of fame.

Thursday morning, after a battle with mesothelioma, Olsen passed away at City of Hope Hospital in California.

He was 69.

"I really think that, for 45 years, nationally, in many respects, he was the face of Utah State University," said USU vice president Ross Peterson, Olsen's former classmate.

And as such, though he didn't campaign for such a title, he never let the school down.

"I think he epitomized someone who was given opportunities and was bright enough, and smart enough, to take advantage of those opportunities," Peterson said. "He is the perfect example of what you can do if you apply yourself."

Merlin Olsen, center, signs autographs over his daughter, Kelly, prior to a 1975 sports clinic he held at Utah State with several of his teammates from the Los Angeles Rams. Olsen died Thursday at City of Hope Hospital in California. He was 69. Born, raised and loved in Logan, Merlin Olsen was the iconic Aggie, where he was an An All-American football player.  (Deseret News Archives, Deseret News Archives) Merlin Olsen, center, signs autographs over his daughter, Kelly, prior to a 1975 sports clinic he held at Utah State with several of his teammates from the Los Angeles Rams. Olsen died Thursday at City of Hope Hospital in California. He was 69. Born, raised and loved in Logan, Merlin Olsen was the iconic Aggie, where he was an An All-American football player. (Deseret News Archives, Deseret News Archives)

Olsen, though, wasn't always a great athlete.

"I was a bust, I couldn't make a team. I couldn't get on a roster and I'd go out for every team they had in the school and I couldn't last past the first practice," Olsen told NFL Films in an interview that is now part of the tribute the league posted online Thursday after Olsen's death.

"I finally was able to start playing and I had all this pent-up frustration. And that gave me enough fuel to last for a long, long time."

Olsen graduated from Utah State in 1962 and was named a consensus All-American and the Outland Trophy winner. He was, perhaps more importantly in his eyes, a three-time Academic All-American, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Kappa Phi with a degree in finance.

"I can't think of anyone who has graduated from Utah State University who has accomplished more in a broader array of fields than Merlin Olsen," Utah State University president Stan Albrecht said. "His distinctive and powerful voice will be remembered for the breadth of its influence and by the impact it has had in so many different facets of our lives."

Merlin Olsen, kneeling, was hitting all the right notes with his teammates in 1965. The Los Angeles Rams linemen became known as the Merlin Olsen, kneeling, was hitting all the right notes with his teammates in 1965. The Los Angeles Rams linemen became known as the "fearless foursome." A Logan native, Olsen died Thursday. (All)

Olsen in many ways personified Utah State University.

The rugged defensive lineman who played a key role in the Los Angeles Rams' famed "Fearsome Foursome," Olsen became the most visible ambassador USU had for decades.

Though he had stepped out of the spotlight for the most part in recent years, he enjoyed a non-football career very much as successful as he had on the field.

After his NFL career was over, Olsen returned to Logan to work on a master's degree while also pursuing an acting and broadcasting career.

He got roles on "Little House on the Prairie" and in movies and eventually landed headlining roles in the television series "Father Murphy" and "Aaron's Way."

He was a national pitchman for FTD florists and had a large role with the Children's Miracle Network telethons. He also teamed with play-by-play man Dick Enberg for many years as a color commentator doing NFL game broadcasts.

Merlin Olsen, serving as honorary fund-drive chairman for Primary Children's Medical Center's  Merlin Olsen, serving as honorary fund-drive chairman for Primary Children's Medical Center's "Pennies by the Inch" program in 1978, visits a patient at the hospital. Olsen died Thursday of cancer. He was 69. (Deseret News Archives, All)

But foremost, Olsen was an Aggie.

"Merlin was just that way," Peterson said. "He was a Cache Valley guy all the way and he excelled at whatever he did.

"For him, he was a perfect fit for Utah State and for Cache Valley."

As dominating as he was on the football field, Olsen had one of the best reputations in the entire league.

Despite being double- or triple-teamed, punched, kicked and even bitten by opposing players, it was virtually impossible to find an opponent with a bad thing to say about Olsen.

Deacon Jones, one of Olsen's partners on the "Fearsome Foursome," admired his friend and teammate.

"You never could rouse him. Never could make him mad. … A couple of times, I'd say 'Merlin, let me handle this turkey,' " Jones told NFL Films. "There'd be guys holding him or biting him or doing something crazy and Merlin won't retaliate that way."

This 1970 handout provided by NFL Photos shows Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Merlin Olsen. Olsen, a former USU football star, Pro Football Hall of Famer and actor, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (NFL, Associated Press) This 1970 handout provided by NFL Photos shows Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Merlin Olsen. Olsen, a former USU football star, Pro Football Hall of Famer and actor, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (NFL, Associated Press)

It was just not the way Olsen wanted to play.

"There are things I will do, things I will not do," Olsen said. "I won't take a cheap shot. There is a level of satisfaction you reach without having to put a violent hit on a quarterback."

Current Utah State football coach Gary Andersen has not been an Aggie for long. Entering only his second year as USU's coach, Andersen has been impacted by Olsen nonetheless.

"He's a tremendous man," Andersen said. "Obviously an ambassador for the university, the football team and everything in between."

Olsen, during a ceremony held in December at the Spectrum during halftime of a USU basketball game, had the playing field at Romney Stadium named in his honor.

That day, Olsen met with Andersen privately to discuss the USU football team.

Following his Hall-of-Fame football career, Merlin Olsen, right, moved into acting and teamed up with Bob Hope, center, and 1976 Summer Olympics star Bruce Jenner in 1981.  Olsen, a native of Logan, died Thursday in California. He was 69. (All) Following his Hall-of-Fame football career, Merlin Olsen, right, moved into acting and teamed up with Bob Hope, center, and 1976 Summer Olympics star Bruce Jenner in 1981. Olsen, a native of Logan, died Thursday in California. He was 69. (All)

"In that short 20-30 minutes time I had with him, on a personal level, he really made an impact," Andersen said. "I got some great advice from him on what he thinks it takes to be a success in football and in life. I've tried to share that with the guys on the team."

Andersen said the USU football team will wear a sticker starting this spring with No. 71 — the number Olsen wore in college — on the back of their helmets to honor and remember the legendary Aggie.

"He's a great example for our kids," Andersen said. "He's an example of exactly what you can do with hard work and integrity."

Those qualities, as much as anything else, Peterson said, personify the person Merlin Olsen was.

"As much as we would call him and ask him to help with something, he never asked for anything from Utah State," Peterson said.

Merlin Olsen with his parents in 1961, when he was named an All American tackle while playing for the Utah State Aggies. Olsen died Thursday. (Deseret News Archives, All) Merlin Olsen with his parents in 1961, when he was named an All American tackle while playing for the Utah State Aggies. Olsen died Thursday. (Deseret News Archives, All)

Utah State, a few years ago, began a capital campaign to raise funds for the school. Olsen was a part of the fundraising committee and they set an ambitious goal of $200 million.

Once that was reached, however, Olsen did not want his school to feel satisfied.

"Merlin said, 'No, we're climbing the next hill,' " Albrecht said.

A member of the State of Utah's Sports Hall of Fame, the Utah State University Sports Hall of Fame and USU's All-Century Football Team, Olsen was also named by "Sports Illustrated" as one of the state of Utah's Top 50 Athletes of the Century. Utah State had a 18-3-1 record under head coach John Ralston and was Skyline Conference co-champion during Olsen's junior and senior seasons. USU played in back-to-back bowl games against New Mexico State (Sun Bowl, 1960) and Baylor (Gotham Bowl, 1961) and finished the 1961 season ranked 10th in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls, the highest-ever final ranking for a USU team. USU gave up only 7.8 points a game that year, but even that was not as impressive as the 1960 team, which allowed 6.5 points per game.As a senior football player at USU, he anchored a defensive line that allowed just 50.8 rushing yards per game to lead the nation. USU also allowed 88.6 passing yards and 139.4 total yards per game in 1961.Meeting challenges and excelling is what Olsen did.

Merlin Olsen in possibly 1977.Olsen died Thursday at City of Hope Hospital in California. He was 69. Born and raised in Logan, Olsen  was an An All-American football player at Utah State.   (Hack Miller, Deseret News) Merlin Olsen in possibly 1977.Olsen died Thursday at City of Hope Hospital in California. He was 69. Born and raised in Logan, Olsen was an An All-American football player at Utah State. (Hack Miller, Deseret News)

Following his collegiate career, Olsen was the third overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft and became a charter member of the Rams. In 15 professional seasons, he was named to an NFL-record 14 Pro Bowls and missed a total of two games during his career. Along with earning All-Pro honors nine times during his career, Olsen was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1962 and the league's Most Valuable Player in 1974.

Olsen, who retired from professional football in 1976, was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and in 1999 was ranked No. 25 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. He was voted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980 and to the All-Academic All-America Hall of Fame in 1988. In 2008, Olsen was named to the 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team to commemorate the Sun Bowl Association's Diamond Anniversary.

In a letter to Olsen, Enberg wrote of his partner's "uncommon willingness to prepare" and added, "I'd often feel that I had given an 'A' effort in our broadcasts, only to recognize you earned the 'A-plus.' "

Merlin Olsen, seated, Sam Rex, left, and Guy DeHart, BYU's outstanding athlete, admire Dale Rex Memorial Trophy won by Olsen. The Dale Rex Memorial Award is presented annually by the Cougar Club to an individual who has made a significant contribution to athletics in the state of Utah. The Logan native died Thursday in California after a long battle with cancer. He was 69. (Deseret News Archives, Deseret News Archives) Merlin Olsen, seated, Sam Rex, left, and Guy DeHart, BYU's outstanding athlete, admire Dale Rex Memorial Trophy won by Olsen. The Dale Rex Memorial Award is presented annually by the Cougar Club to an individual who has made a significant contribution to athletics in the state of Utah. The Logan native died Thursday in California after a long battle with cancer. He was 69. (Deseret News Archives, Deseret News Archives)

Beyond their professional relationship, Enberg also was struck by Olsen's personality — "a man of goodness, eager to consciously do the right thing for yourself, while helping others."

John Ralston, coach of those great Aggie teams, still raves about Olsen, who also played offensive line while in college.

"He was the best blocker I've ever seen, and I've been around football for a lot of years," Ralston said. "You'd just run your running back right behind him. He could do it all. You'd play him 60 minutes, and the last minute would be as good as the first minute."

In recent years, Olsen took an active role in causes he felt were important. He was a member of a committee that worked to preserve the water levels and quality at Bear Lake. He also worked to preserve open green space in the Park City area where he maintained a home.

The 1964 Los Angeles Rams defensive front four, known as the The 1964 Los Angeles Rams defensive front four, known as the "Fearsome Foursome," from left to right are Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones. Olsen, a former USU football star, Pro Football Hall of Famer and actor, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (NFL, Associated Press)

Foremost, however, Olsen's legacy will be that of a gentle giant of a football player. A man who, although he made every effort to play within the rules, dominated opponents like few before and few since.

"The satisfaction that I drew from the game was from playing the game and from playing it very well," Olsen said during his NFL Films interview. "I had such a great career and I enjoyed playing the game so much, that I had very few regrets."

Timeline

Sept. 15, 1940 — Born in Logan, Utah

1958 — Graduated from Logan High School

1960-61 — All-American at Utah State University

1961 — Outland Trophy winner

March 30, 1962 — Married Susan Wakley

Merlin Olsen, right, of the Los Angeles Rams, battles Atlanta guard Gregg Kindle, during an NFL game in Los Angeles on Dec. 4, 1976. Olsen, a former USU football star, Pro Football Hall of Famer and actor, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (Associated Press) Merlin Olsen, right, of the Los Angeles Rams, battles Atlanta guard Gregg Kindle, during an NFL game in Los Angeles on Dec. 4, 1976. Olsen, a former USU football star, Pro Football Hall of Famer and actor, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at the age of 69. (Associated Press)

1962 — Graduated from USU

1962 — First-round draft pick, NFL Rookie of Year, L.A. Rams

1962-75 — Selected to NFL Pro Bowl

1962-76 — Member of "Fearsome Foursome," L.A. Rams

1974 — National Football League MVP

1977-81 — Starred in "Little House on the Prairie"

1981-83 — Starred in "Father Murphy"

1982 — Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame

1977-91 — Football color analyst for NBC, CBS

2009 — Diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer

December 5, 2009 — Football field at USU named in his honor

Merlin Olsen in his last year with the Los Angeles Rams in 1976. Following his Hall-of-Fame NFL career, Olsen, a native of Logan, went on to acting and sportscasting. He died Thursday at age 69. (All) Merlin Olsen in his last year with the Los Angeles Rams in 1976. Following his Hall-of-Fame NFL career, Olsen, a native of Logan, went on to acting and sportscasting. He died Thursday at age 69. (All)

March 11, 2010 — Died at Duarte, Calif.

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