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Merlin Olsen dies; NFL Hall of Famer became football analyst, TV actor

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; B07

Merlin Olsen, 69, a Hall of Fame defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams who became equally well known after his playing days as a football broadcaster, television actor and commercial pitchman, died March 11 at a hospital in Duarte, Calif., outside Los Angeles. He had mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer often related to exposure to asbestos.

Mr. Olsen was the anchor of the Rams' defensive line known as the "Fearsome Foursome," an intimidating front wall that captured the imagination of fans in the 1960s and helped make defensive play in football as exciting and innovative as the offense. After his playing career, he was a TV football analyst for 16 years, had leading roles in the wholesome frontier dramas "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy" and was the longtime spokesman for FTD florists.

In his 15 seasons with the Rams from 1962 to 1976, Mr. Olsen never missed a game and was named to 14 consecutive Pro Bowl teams, a record later matched by offensive lineman Bruce Matthews. He won the NFL's most valuable player award in 1974 and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, the first year he was eligible. His jersey number, 74, was retired by the Rams, and he still holds the all-time team record for tackles, with 915.

"He had as much to do as any other individual with glamorizing defensive football in the NFL," his official biography at the Pro Football Hall of Fame states.

Mr. Olsen played left tackle in the Rams' legendary front four, with David "Deacon" Jones at left end, Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier at right tackle and Lamar Lundy at right end. The "Fearsome Foursome" were together only four years (1963-66), but in that time they revolutionized defensive line play with "stunting" and "looping" techniques, in which they crossed paths or slanted across the line to rush the passer. Jones, who lined up to Mr. Olsen's left, coined the term "sack" to describe tackling the opposing quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Jones and Mr. Olsen are both in the Hall of Fame, making them, in the words of sports columnist Steve Bisheff, "the finest side-by-side pairing of defensive linemen in the history of the sport."

Besides extraordinary strength, the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Mr. Olsen had remarkable balance, quickness and durability, and he was equally adept at rushing the passer and stopping the running game. He was an exceptionally cerebral player who prepared for his games -- as a player and later as an analyst -- as if studying for an exam.

"He was so thoroughly prepared, he should have been a lawyer," his longtime NBC broadcast partner Dick Enberg told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.

"The key to consistency of performance is concentration," Mr. Olsen once said, according to the Notable Sports Figures reference work. "Each game, at the beginning of each play, I thought of it as the most important play of the year. I went into every play as if the game depended on it."

Merlin Jay Olsen was born Sept. 15, 1940, in Logan, Utah, and was an unpromising athlete as a child. In the ninth grade, a coach recommended that he try out for the band, rather than the football team. But through hard work and sheer size -- he was 6-4, 225 pounds in high school -- he blossomed into an outstanding athlete in four sports.

At Utah State University, he was a two-time all-American and won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the country in 1961. He graduated summa cum laude, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society and, while playing in the NFL in 1970, received a master's degree from Utah State in economics.

After his football career, he analyzed football games for NBC and CBS and sought acting advice from actor-producer Michael Landon, who cast him as Jonathan Garvey in NBC's "Little House on the Prairie" from 1977 to 1981. In the early 1980s, Mr. Olsen starred in NBC's "Father Murphy," as an Old West frontiersman who disguises himself as a priest to help orphans.

Mr. Olsen was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980, and Utah State named its football field after him in December. Last year, Mr. Olsen sued NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox and other companies, claiming he developed cancer from negligent exposure to asbestos.

Two of his brothers, Phil and Orrin Olsen, also played in the NFL. They survive him, along with his wife of 47 years, Susan Wakley Olsen; three children; another brother; five sisters; and four grandchildren.

Describing his years with the Fearsome Foursome, Mr. Olsen said in 1997: "We could have fit in extremely comfortably in the modern game. I was the shortest at 6-5 and our average weight was 275 pounds. And there was not a weight lifter in the group."

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