Remembering Merlin Olsen

There were plenty of the usual, mundane, sports topics I contemplated writing about Thursday. I’ll get to them eventually. Forgot all about them when I found out Merlin Olsen died earlier that morning losing his battle against a form of lung cancer. He was 69.

If you knew nothing about big number 74 before Thursday, you’ve, by now, probably read all about the NFL hall-of-famer and anchor of the Los Angeles RamsFearsome Foursome” defensive line of the 1960’s. Alongside Olsen was tackle Rosey Grier, who came from the New York Giants via trade for tackle Roger Brown, and defensive ends Lamar Lundy and David “Deacon” Jones, all four causing havoc and mayhem for all opponents.

Olsen played 15 seasons all for the Los Angeles Rams, never missing a game, was all-pro for 14 of those seasons garnering the Most Valuable Player Award in 1974, before retiring in 1976. He’s STILL the franchise leader in tackles with 915.

Olsen never played in a Super Bowl. He always was left one game short. Back then, the Rams could never get by the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers or Baltimore Colts with the Super Bowl on the line. Didn’t matter. More often than not, the inability of the offense to score at crucial times in championship games was the Rams Achilles Heel.

For many of you, Olsen is better remembered for his role as Jonathan Garvey on TV’s “Little House on the Prairie” and, later, starring in his own show, “Father Murphy”. Quite honestly, I never watched “Little House on the Prairie” or “Father Murphy”. I do remember his TV work as the pitch-man for FTD Florists and as Dick Enberg’s analyst on NBC-NFL broadcasts.

My fondest memories of Merlin Olsen are, as a little kid in the 1970‘s, about going to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Sunday afternoons in the Fall and watching big number 74 stuff opposing running backs forcing teams to pass which enabled him and guys like Jack Youngblood and Fred Dryer to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. That was the era of the second incarnation of the “Fearsome Foursome”. Olsen and  Larry Brooks were the interior defensive tackles with Youngblood and Dryer working either end of the line. Olsen IS the only link to both incarnations.

Back to the 70’s. It was an incredible time to be a Los Angeles Rams fan. Beginning in 1973, the Rams won an NFL-record seven straight NFC Western Division Titles. For the first four titles, Olsen was the leader on a Rams team that, defensively, would beat down opposing teams no matter what offensive super-star any team would challenge the Rams defense with. The Cowboys with Roger Staubach, Drew Pearson and Tony Dorsett. The Bills and O.J. Simpson. The Vikings with Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman, the Cardinals and Jim Hart. The Steelers with Bradshaw, Swann, Stallworth and Harris. I’d always look forward to listening to the Rams Theme Song played by the Rams Band after big plays and wins. Was also fun to watch “Archy”, the ARCO Mascot, dance on the Coliseum scoreboard after big plays and scores. The following Monday morning, it was always a treat to re-live the game reading about it and cutting out the photographs in the L.A. Times and Herald Examiner sports sections.

I remember Merlin Olsen never danced after making a big tackle or quarterback sack never gloating over his victim like today‘s players seem to do as if it‘s part of the game. Many times Olsen would give his victim a helping hand off the turf and a pat on the behind. All the Rams defensive players followed his lead. Win or lose at the end of a game, Olsen was the first at mid-field to shake the opponents hands. Olsen respected the game and those who played it.

Olsen was genuinely a good guy on and off the field. The first TV interview I conducted as a broadcast journalism student was with Merlin Olsen. He was taking part in a celebrity fund-raiser golf event in Buena Park, California. To tell you how long ago that was………Ronald Reagan was President.

Needless to say, I was excited and extremely nervous to be interviewing one of my childhood heroes. Luckily, it wasn’t a live shot. I completely blanked. We turned off the camera excusing myself all the while to Mr. Olsen. He chuckled a bit and in a deep voice said to me, “No problems. We’re just having a nice conversation.” That’s what we had. A nice conversation.

Now, before interviewing anyone, especially kids, I remember looking up at Merlin Olsen, who was wearing a white golf cap that day way back when, and repeat what he said to me, “We’re just having a nice conversation”.

With his passing, I’ve lost another part of my childhood. The one where my father, brother and I would watch Merlin Olsen and the Rams at the Coliseum. What’s amazing to me, in this world of social media networking, I know I’m not the only one who’s lost a member of the family with Olsen’s passing.

On FaceBook, there’s a group called “Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams”.  A group detailing stories of Autumn Sunday afternoons at the Coliseum and Anaheim Stadium when the Rams were thee sports team here…and hope there could be more memories in the future. Will it happen. Who knows.

In the meantime, you can find tributes to Merlin Olsen on that group’s page. That’s what’s sad. Only on that group page can they be found. We can’t go to the West Pico Boulevard Office of the Rams, across the street from the Rancho Park Golf Course. It no longer exists. We can’t go to Rams Park in Fullerton. It no longer exists. I suppose we can go to the Coliseum and put together a “memorial shrine” to Olsen near the Peristyle end of the stadium. Would anyone care.

The Rams left for St. Louis 16 years ago. Had they still called Los Angeles home during that time, Olsen and his “Fearsome Foursome” mates would have been celebrated in front of a packed stadium on one of those glorious L.A. Autumn Sunday afternoons. It never happened and it never will. Olsen and Lamar Lundy are gone. Rosey Grier, “The Deacon”, Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Larry Brooks and Cody Jones are still around. But, we can’t pay tribute to these guys because Autumn Sunday Afternoons at the Coliseum with the Rams and the NFL no longer exist. That’s a disgrace.

But, along with the L.A. natives in the group “Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams”, I’m fortunate enough to have memories of those great times, great Rams teams and great players like Merlin Olsen. The rest of you missed out.

Maybe Roger Goodell and the NFL should think about having a pre-season game at the Coliseum with the Rams, playing in the blue and white throwbacks, taking on the San Francisco 49ers and hold pre-game and halftime ceremonies celebrating Merlin Olsen and the Fearsome Foursome.  Better still, instead of having a regular season game in London, have it in Los Angeles at the Coliseum with the Rams, wearing blue and white throwbacks, taking on the 49ers and hold pre-game and halftime ceremonies celebrating Merlin Olsen, the Fearsome Foursome and the Los Angeles Rams.  One game couldn’t hurt. Bet it’d be a sell-out. It’s a “no-brainer”. Maybe that’s too obvious and RIGHT for the NFL Suits to do.

Rest in Peace, Merlin Olsen. Live long in our hearts and memories along with the Los Angeles Rams and those glorious Autumn Sunday afternoons at the Coliseum.

Eric’s NFL Conference Championship Game Picks

LAST WEEK: 1-3 (4-4 overall)

AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

#5 NEW YORK JETS +7.5 @ #1 INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (over/under 39 points)
-Safe to say the Colts won’t “tank” this re-match while Jets players should hug every Colts player prior to kick-off for this opportunity to play for a shot at the Super Bowl. The Christmas Gift was delivered December 27th when, with a 14-0 record, home-field secured for the playoffs and a 15-10 lead over the Jets, who needed to win to keep post-season hopes alive, Colts coach Jim Caldwell pulled all his starters in the third quarter. Jets jumped at the opportunity scoring 19 unanswered points for a 29-15 win.

Don’t be fooled. The Jets belong. They’ve won seven of their last eight including the two playoff wins thanks to the league’s best defense and top running game anchored by that monster offensive line. Over the last eight games only the Colts have scored more than 14 on New York. Rookie Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan has his team playing patient football, evident in last week’s division win over high-powered San Diego. Aided by some Chargers missed field goals, New York’s defense surrendered just seven points through three quarters frustrating the Bolts. Meanwhile, on offense, the Jets rookie tandem of Sanchez and RB Shonn Greene “broke” through a worn-out Chargers defense scoring 17 straight on their way to a 17-14 win. In the two playoff wins, Greene’s carried the rock 44 times for 263 yards and two touchdowns while Sanchez has completed 24 of 38 passes for 282 yards, two scores and a pick.

QB and MVP “St. Peyton Manning” and the Colts are 3-0 in the post-season against Rex Ryan defenses beating the Baltimore Ravens the previous two post-seasons with Ryan as their defensive coordinator. Ironically, the Colts beat Baltimore, 20-3 last week to get to the title game against Ryan’s Jets and will be much more patient against the New York’s “D“ than the Chargers. Looking at stats, the Colts should be the logical under-dog in this one ranking last in the league in rushing, 7th overall offensively, and 24th against the run, 8th overall defensively. A little deceiving because those stats are reflective of what happens between the 20’s. The Colts rely on the pass to get to the end zone but once they get inside the “Red Zone”, they can punch it in with RB Joseph Addai who ran for 10 scores during the season tying him for sixth overall. Obviously, Manning’s Golden Arm and speedy receivers are thee “WMD‘s” for the Indy Offense. Jets all-pro DB Darrelle Revis can only cover one guy per play. Colts defense can play the run when it has to. They only gave up 87 rushing yards to the Ravens last week, after Baltimore ran all over New England the week before, and 307 total points during the season, 7th fewest in the league. They have to stop New York’s ground game and make Sanchez beat them. Colts have one of the top pairs of all-pro defensive ends in Dwight Freeney (13.5 sacks) and Robert Mathis (9.5 sacks). Jets better be able to run or Sanchez will be in trouble.

Anyway, did you know this is the first time a conference championship game features a Super Bowl Re-Match? Yup. Before the AFL-NFL merger in 1971, the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts represented the NFL losing to Joe Nammath’s AFL Jets, 16-7 in Super Bowl III in Miami. In another ironic twist, the winner of Sunday’s AFC Title Game earns a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XLIV. Did you, also, know Jets rookie QB Mark Sanchez has as many playoff wins as Nammath did his entire career (2.…Nammath’s Super Bowl win‘s counted as a Championship game win). Sanchez will have to wait and win at least two, if not three, more playoff games to have a shot at a Super Bowl.
COLTS, 16-7 (just for fun).

NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

#2 MINNESOTA VIKINGS +3.5 @ #1 NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (O/U 52.5 pts)
-THE BIG EASY’S GONNA BE ROCKIN’!!! The season’s two highest scoring teams going at it for a berth in the Super Bowl.

Vikings QB Brett Favre became the first 40 year old QB to win a playoff game in Minnesota’s 34-3 win over Dallas last week. Here’s what’s even more incredible. In his storied 19 year hall-of-fame career, that was the first time Favre threw four touchdown passes in a playoff game. He’s loving life because he’s got so many offensive weapons. Favre throws to Sidney Rice, who caught three of those four TD’s last week, NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Percy Harvin (barring a migraine) and TE Visanthe Shiancoe who caught 11 TD’s during the season. Oh! I forgot. Favre can also hand it off to 1,000 yard rusher Adrian Peterson who tallied a league-leading 18 rushing touchdowns this season. He’s the difference to me because Peterson can take pressure off Favre’s shoulders by taking off against the league’s 25th ranked overall defense. That’ll open up the passing game.

Defensively, the Vikings are maliciously quick and fast. DE’s Jared Allen and Ray Edwards combined to sack Cowboys QB Tony Romo six times last week and were in his face for 25 of his 42 pass attempts. The Vikings led the league with 48 sacks during the season with Allen topping the league with 14.5. That’s key.

Saints QB Drew Brees also has some incredibly potent weapons. WR’s Marques Colston and Robert Meachem both scored nine TD’s during the season. He’s also got TE Jeremy Shockey from THE U. He’s got running backs Reggie Bush, Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas who all scored at least five TD’s as well during the season. Brees is going to have to pass quickly to these guys to avoid the Vikings pass rush. Bush had a stellar game in last week’s 45-14 win over Arizona. But that was against a Cardinals defense that became the first team in playoff history to allow 45 points in consecutive post-season games. Vikings “D” is a different story.

As for the Saints “D”, they were able to disrupt immobile Cardinals QB Kurt Warner last week with a bull rush because he’s a “stay at home pocket passer”. Not Favre. He creates on the run and can kill you in or out of the pocket…even at 40 (BTW, if I were Favre, I‘d picked up the option on the second year of his contract and come back next year. I say, let him play as long as he can and has fun). If Saints DT Sedric Ellis can stop Peterson and force Favre to make bad throws, which he’s done before, then the Saints secondary, led by Favre’s ex-Packers teammate Darren Sharper (also a former Viking) can take over. 11 different Saints secondary defenders combined for 26 interceptions during the season. I see Adrian Peterson having a huge day opening up the Vikes “O”. But, the Saints are at home in the SuperDome, so they’re going to be able to work some quick passes for big gains.

Anyway, Brett Favre won his only Super Bowl ring in the SuperDome leading Green Bay to a Super Bowl XXXI win over New England. The “Big Easy’s” hosted nine Super Bowls. But, this will be the first time it’s hosted the NFC Championship game. This will be the Saints second NFC Title Game appearance in four years having lost to the Bears in Chicago in 2006. Sticking to my NFC pick and score.
VIKINGS, 30-27 in OT.

That means it’ll be INDIANAPOLIS against MINNESOTA in the Super Bowl February 7th. But, wouldn’t be too surprised if the JETS and/or the SAINTS were headed to Miami. I’ll just stick with the VIKINGS and COLTS.

MISSED PLAYOFFS: LOS ANGELES*
*15 years, 20 weeks and counting. Expect a big announcement the week after the Super Bowl about Los Angeles returning to the NFL as early as next season.

Remember, use my picks to wager $$$ at your own risk. If you lose, I had nothing to do with it. If you win beaucoup $$$, a 10% tip would be cool. But, I’m realistic. This is just for your entertainment…or not, and for me to keep my sports “mojo” going until “I’m back in the saddle”. Remember the league’s unofficial motto…“ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, MONDAY, THURSDAY, FRIDAY OR SATURDAY“…………

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