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 Rams “Fearsome 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.