Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Former USU star and NFL Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen and his wife, Susan, stand at midcourt during announcement that USU will rename the football field "Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium" Saturday in the Spectrum. The Aggies lost to Saint Mary's.

LOGAN — Paying homage to a man the university president called the greatest ambassador the school has ever had, Utah State University announced a significant change to its football stadium.

Utah State will rename the playing surface at Romney Stadium after arguably the greatest football player in school history.

Merlin Olsen, a two-time All-American for the Aggies, has been diagnosed with cancer in recent months and the honor comes almost 50 years after he led the team to a pair of bowl games.

Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium will be officially dedicated at a homecoming game during next fall's football season.

"Susan (his wife) and I and the entire Olsen family are pleased and excited at the announcement this week that the playing field in Romney Stadium is being renamed Merlin Olsen Field," Olsen said in a press release. "I share this special honor with great coaches and teammates. Remembering those days brings to mind some of the happiest and most productive days of my life."

USU President Stan Albrecht said the school and family decided to make the announcement now instead of waiting until football season because of Olsen's illness.

"We felt some urgency and his family felt some urgency to get this done," Albrecht said.

Athletic director Scott Barnes said the naming of the field will be part of a celebration of Olsen's life that will include a bronze statue placed in the south plaza at Romney Stadium and the creation of a scholarship endowment in Olsen's name.

"Unfortunately," Barnes said, "Merlin's health is not good, and we felt it good to take an early basketball game to do this."

Olsen, a 14-time NFL Pro Bowl player during his Hall of Fame career, is a person synonymous with Utah State. He is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and his No. 71 was retired years ago by USU.

"I can't think of anyone who has gone through this institution that has accomplished more in as broad arenas," Albrecht said, "as Merlin Olsen. ... He has so effectively carried that Aggie banner."

Olsen was a three-time academic All-American while at USU and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman in 1961.

He was the third overall selection in the 1961 NFL Draft and spent 15 seasons playing for the Los Angeles Rams.

"Merlin is a distinguished alumni who has given back generously of his time and financial resources over many years," said Barnes, who noted his wife grew up playing with Melissa Gilbert between scenes during the filming of "Little House on the Prairie" and remembers seeing Olsen on the set. "He has carried the flag for our great university with dignity and honor, and we are grateful to recognize him in this special way."

Olsen took a seat on the second row at the Spectrum, just to the side of the rowdy student section, as the Aggies played Saint Mary's on Saturday night. Earlier, he enjoyed a dinner and reception in his honor at the new end zone football complex overlooking the playing field that will soon bear his name.

Olsen declined to speak directly with the media, but he did take the floor at halftime to thank his fellow Aggies with a bow of the head and wave of the hand.

Utah State students chanted his name, wore special T-shirts bearing his number, and the school presented a special video honoring Olsen.

Twitter: DesNewsEborn