Frank Doyle looks back on the Hall of Fame career of LA Rams defensive tackle, Merlin Olsen, who passed away on Wednesday.
Merlin Olsen was proof that you don’t have to be a badass to be badass. It was like there were two men inhabiting the same body – the gentle TV personality, who was a star in family friendly primetime TV fare like Little House on the Prairie and Father Murphy, and that other guy.
That other guy who won the Outland Trophy in 1961 as the best interior lineman in the nation. The guy who played defensive tackle for the LA Rams for fifteen years and went to the Pro Bowl for fourteen years, losing out only the year before he retired. The guy who went straight to Canton on his very first year of eligibility. The guy who is one of only seven Rams to have their number retired.
Olsen, with Rosey Grier, Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones, revolutionised defensive line play in the 1960s. The Fearsome Foursome did not play together for very long, but their reputation and legacy echoes on into today, even though it’s been fifteen years and counting since there was pro football in LA.
Gil Brandt, the former personnel director of the Cowboys, summed up Olsen as a player when Brandt was quoted on NFL Fanhouse: “He was strong, he was fast, he was like the athlete of today back in 1962. He was as good as I’ve ever seen at that position. If there’s someone better, I don’t know who it is.”
After fifteen years in the primal battles of the NFL lines, Olsen moved into acting on Little House, and into the broadcast booth as a colour man with Dick Enberg on NBC in the ‘eighties where he provided understated but deep insight on what it was like to be a player in The Show.
The last Super Bowl Olsen called was Super Bowl XXIII, when the 49ers beat the Bengals thanks to Joe Montana’s famous final quarter drive, 92 yards that culminated in a touchdown pass to John Taylor. The game will always be remembered for that drive, and rightly so, but in the light of Olsen’s passing it’s good to remember his reaction to another famous – or more rightly, infamous – incident in that game.
On the fourteenth play, Tim Krumrie, the nose tackle for Cincinnati and an integral and inspirational member of that 1988 team, caught his cleats in the turf while trying to tackle Roger Craig. Krumrie’s leg broke in three places, and the slow motion replay showed Krumrie’s leg flopping up in the air, like an empty sock that someone was shaking out before putting it on the washing line.
Olsen broke the silence in the booth. “I don’t think we need to see that again,” he said quietly. Olsen played the same position as Krumrie. He knew that could have been him on any one of the thousands of snaps Olsen faced during his fifteen year career, and how lucky he had been that it wasn’t.
And that was the man. He was football through and through, but Merlin Olsen knew there was a bigger picture. A gentle, kind and good man on this, civilian, side of the white line. An uncompromising, crushing, overpowering presence once he strapped on the helmet. May he rest in peace.