Merlin Olsen's Legacy; For Those Who May Not Remember The Player and Man...
Merlin Olsen died at the age of 69. Could his death have been prevented? Leigh Steinberg
Print ThisSend ThisAugust 25, 2011, 04:00 PM EST
I fell in love with NFL football in the late 50's and 60's because my father took my brothers and I to a Los Angeles Rams game at the L.A. Coliseum. They were nosebleed seats—which necessitated telescopic strength field glasses to follow the action—but regardless of distance to the field, we loved the Rams.
The "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line eviscerated opposing quarterbacks, wreaking havoc on offenses throughout the league. Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Roosevelt Grier were devastating and colorful, but my special favorite was the "Gentle Giant" Merlin Olsen. He played 15 years for the Rams, earned 14 invites to the Pro Bowl and was later inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Olsen earned 14 trips to the Pro Bowl in 15 professional seasons.
Sadly, Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma (asbestos cancer) in 2009 and died not long after at the age of 69.
Asbestos is a compound that is used in heavy equipment and mixed into drywalls. Harvard medical professors and the Assistant Surgeon General of the United States have testified that exposure to this substance for even a few minutes can greatly increase the risk of cancer. Unfortunately, the United States has given in to industry pressure and refused to outlaw this cancer-producing substance. Many of the homes constructed in the 60's and 70's in this country have concentrations of asbestos in their drywalls. Readers need to be especially careful when remodeling or reconstruction occurs in their homes so as not to be exposed.
The family of Merlin Olsen filed a wrongful death suit against major corporations like Georgia Pacific and Caterpillar, alleging that their use of asbestos in machinery and building caused his cancer. Their stated desire was not to seek personal enrichment, but to use any award for advancing public awareness of the dangers and risks of asbestos.
The case is about to go to trial in Los Angeles.
Merlin Olsen grew up in Utah where economic circumstances forced him to work on construction projects as a youth, which he continued through college. Olsen’s early sports career was less than auspicious. One of his coaches counseled him to "work hard on the books because you certainly have no future in sports.” He dressed in overalls, was very clumsy and was teased by his peers.
However, Olsen’s fierce determination and work ethic allowed him to overcome his early athletic challenges and develop into a major star. He attended Utah State at a time when it was not a major football force, but he changed that too. As a senior, Olsen led his team to a Bowl appearance and a top-ten national ranking and he was awarded the Outland Trophy as the top lineman in the country.
It’s hard to remember than in 1962 the NFL and AFL were in a battle for top college talent. Olsen became the subject of a bidding war between the Rams and the AFL’s Denver Broncos, as he was a top-four pick in the first found of both drafts. He chose the Rams for the security and prestige of the older league.
The “Gentle Giant” played out his career with one team in the nation's second largest market. He was often the first player quoted because of his extraordinary wit and intelligence. Olsen went post-grad in the offseason to get a Masters in Economics. A devout Mormon, he exemplified great values and character. It is rare to see the contrast between frightening size and domination and a generous and charitable heart. Watching him, I saw how athletes could deliver powerful messages and serve as role models. I later built a practice of ninety NFL superstars based on the charitable and community actions I saw Merlin perform.
In addition to being an NFL superstar, Olsen had an incredible second career as an actor. With distinctive characteristics and a mellifluous voice, he was sought by Hollywood and wound up playing Michael Landon's best friend “Jonathan Garvey” on the top rated show "Little House on the Prairie.” He later had his own show, starring as "Father Murphy.”
Olsen as "Jonathan Garvey" from Little House on the Prairie.
Olsen later moved from acting to NFL commentating, where his great football intelligence made him a natural for pairing with Dick Enberg on NBC and later Dick Stockton on CBS. He became the spokesman for many companies and his FTD ads ran for years. He gave speeches for corporations throughout the country and joined their boards.
Olsen campaigned tirelessly for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. It was there that I had the pleasure of having lunch with him at the yearly player event, as I was in town after being asked by Warren Moon to present him at the Hall of Fame induction. Presenters do what the inductees do during Hall of Fame week and we went to a luncheon with every living Hall of Fame member. I happened to sit next to Merlin and we quickly got to talking.
He told me he had taken time off to focus on family in Utah for several years but was anxious to get back to acting, commentating, public speaking and endorsements because his “sabbatical was done and he was restless.” I told him he was one of the few former athletes who had transcended the genre of sports to become an American icon and household name. The eclectic combination of his life activities gave him tremendous positive name recognition that could lead to an amazing future economically and as a continued role model. He said that he admired the work I had done for Hall of Famers like Howie Long, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren and Bruce Smith and I outlined what he could expect with the amazing growth in television and marketing. He was excited and told me he would love to work together.
He never got that chance.
When the Olsen family came and asked me to be an expert witness in their case I agreed because of my lifetime respect for Merlin's role modeling and the continuing danger from asbestos. As of this past Tuesday I have been deposed for a total of 21 hours by a flotilla of attorneys.
I don't recommend it for the faint of heart. It is a Chinese water torture experience. If a judge came to me and offered the choice of 21 hours of being deposed or 21 months in the county jail, I would ask him for time to consider the question.
Merlin Olsen died unnecessarily at 69 years of age. He should have had many more years of contribution to this world. It is a world that needs more people like Merlin Olsen.
In his last selfless act, he took a stand to protect the public from a serious health risk.
Follow Leigh on Twitter: @SteinbergSports
I'm getting to that age where a lifetime warranty just doesn't mean as much to me anymore as an afternoon nap. Honey Badger Don't Care. Honey Badger Don't Give a Shit.
funny thing—until my teens, i only knew the guy as Pa's pal in Walnut Grove. And, yes, I loved Little House. Sue me ... :)
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