Merlin Olsen: NFL's Greatest DT Ever?
Olsen, who died Thursday at age 69, came out of Utah State in 1962 as the seventh overall pick in the NFL draft, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive tackle who was an athlete first in an era when most players his size were simply big bodies picked to stuff the middle and stop the run.
"He was way ahead of his time,'' said Gil Brandt, who in those days was in the first decade of a 30-year career as personnel director of the Dallas Cowboys.
"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.''
He was also versatile post-NFL career.
Like John Madden, Olsen is remembered by younger fans as a broadcaster, teamed for most of his television career with Dick Enberg on NBC's top crew. He doubled as an actor, primarily on "Little House on the Prairie,'' one of the top-rated shows of the 1970s and 1980s. He followed that with his own show, "Father Murphy,'' on which he played a priest.
One of his classic lines on "Little House": "I don't know a thing about football,'' his character, Jonathan Garvey, said when he was asked to coach a youth team.
In fact, he was all about football.
He missed his first two games as a rookie in 1962 with an injury, then played 208 straight, making the Pro Bowl 14 consecutive times. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer, inducted in 1982, two years after he was inducted into college football's Hall.
He was the hub of what may be the best defensive line ever, the Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" -- it also featured Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier, all of whom had their own personas. Jones, like Olsen, is a Hall of Famer and one of the best defensive linemen ever; Grier, like Olsen, became an actor and personality; and the 6-7 Lundy was the most athletic, MVP of both the football and basketball teams as a senior at Purdue.
Olsen used his intelligence as well as his physical skills to dominate opponents.
"Economics comes easily to me, and we all seek out what we do well in life. I had in mind becoming a businessman. And I was good at logic and reasoning; figures were comfortable inside my head." he said in a 1980 interview with Sports Illustrated. He saw the same economics in pro football -- charting almost mathematically the quickest route to the quarterback and making sure he left his mark.
Off the field, he was more like the gentle giant he played on television, polite and accommodating with fans, media and players. The logic and reasoning he discussed went into his analysis of games. There were none of the "Bang!'' and "Boom!'' calls to accompany replays the way Madden did them, but a reasoned, easy-to-understand delivery enhanced by solid homework -- long talks with players and coaches.
Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma last year. He had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments.