Merlin Olsen: The Schizophrenic Football Player

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IMarch 13, 2010

LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 5: Commentators (L-R) Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen talk into microphones during a broadcast at the1985 AFC Divisional Playoffs game with the  New England Patriots against the Los Angeles Raiders at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on January 5, 1986 in Los Angeles, California. The Patriots won 27-20. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
George Rose/Getty Images

Merlin Olsen always fascinated me. I considered him borderline schizophrenic.

On the football field, Olsen was part of the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome defensive line that swallowed ball carriers whole. He, Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones, and Rosey Grier gave no quarter on Sunday afternoons. You’d be better off running through a fire wearing a suit soaked with gasoline.

Olsen, like his line brethren, was mean, nasty, unforgiving, snarling, and angry.

But it was what he did, not what he was.

Jones, on the other hand, reveled in his reputation as a virtual madman. He never tried to shed that skin. Even today, at age 71, Deacon’s eyes get wild and they dance when he talks about his playing days and how much he liked to inflict punishment. Deacon takes credit for inventing the term, and stat, “quarterback sack.” Not that anyone in their right mind would argue the point with him.

Olsen, the Hall of Fame football player (in pro AND college) who passed away this week at age 69 from cancer—talk about things that are unforgiving—was a cerebral football player. Literary, even. No one had to fix his grades in college, nor feed him Basket Weaving 101 to help him earn his degree.

The fascination I had with Olsen began when I first heard him speak. He was still a player at the time. I was an adolescent.

This is going to sound terribly ignorant on my part, but I had no idea football players could talk like that.

Olsen, as a player and later as a TV analyst and eventually actor, spoke with eloquence and intelligence and he could string more than a few sentences together without needing a timeout. Or an oxygen mask.

This was the same man on the gridiron every weekend, crushing quarterbacks like a nutcracker?

You don’t play pro football without anger or passion or a hatred for the other team. It’s still the most violent of all the sports, because the collisions and the brutal physical contact are constant—on every play, without let up.

Olsen retired as a player over 30 years ago, and I still can’t fathom him harming a fly, let alone head slapping some poor offensive guard silly.

Then Olsen went and became a TV analyst, and displayed every Sunday that dichotomy between the angry, punishing player that he was in pads and the gentle, laid back, egghead orator he had become in suit and tie.

Olsen and Michigan kid Dick Enberg partnered for years as the lead announcing team on NBC. They broadcast Super Bowls and Rose Bowls and the biggest games of the regular season.

Olsen used words found in Webster’s Dictionary, which was a step in the right direction in understanding him. He didn’t yell “Boom” and “Bam” and turn your TV set into an Etch-a-Sketch with his TeleStrator. He wasn’t a former coach who was still trying to coach from the broadcast booth.

You know who I’m talking about, and there’s nothing wrong with that, if you prefer your football analysis to be espresso. Olsen, on the other hand, was a soothing cup of warm tea.

Tea and football might not seem to mix, but Olsen’s calm, in-control style worked fabulously with Enberg’s, which was steady professionalism sprinkled with the occasional, voice-cracking “Oh, my!”

Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen were Batman and Robin, where so many of the other broadcast teams were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Then Olsen, while still calling football games, turned to Hollywood as an actor, but that wasn’t new for the pro football player. Jim Brown, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Fred Williamson, Bernie Casey and Joe Namath and others tried their hands at it. Few were any good.

Yet Olsen and another former Rams defensive lineman, Freddie Dryer, actually excelled on the screen, each starring in their own TV shows.

But while Dryer imported his tough guy image into his police officer character on television, Olsen played…Father Murphy!

Oh, and Olsen hawked flowers for a time, becoming the official spokesperson for FTD Florists.

Like I said, schizophrenic.

Olsen attended Utah State University and graduated summa cum laude and Sigma Chi with a degree in finance in 1962. That’s the resume of a nerd, not a bone-crushing football player.

Olsen played pro football for 15 seasons and made the Pro Bowl in 14 of those, missing only in his final season of 1976.

“After a few games I knew I was going to be able to compete,” Olsen said of becoming a pro out of Utah State. “The idea of being a star never crossed my mind.”

Last year, Olsen was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lungs that is normally caused by too much exposure to asbestos. In January 2010, Olsen filed a lawsuit against NBC Studios, NBC Universal, and 20th Century Fox for exposing him to the asbestos that he believed led to his cancer.

On Thursday, Olsen died in a California hospital.

The Fearsome Foursome is down to two. Lundy passed away in 2007.

“Our whole philosophy was to intimidate the quarterback,” Olsen once said. “We were able to do it. We were pioneers. People still recognize us as, maybe, the best defensive line of all time.”

Not maybe, Merlin.


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