During the 1960s, the Los Angeles Rams had one of the most formidable defensive lines in the NFL.
“The Fearsome Foursome” consisted of Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones, and Merlin Olsen.
Olsen was the third of the quartet to arrive in Los Angeles and he remained a member of the organization until 1976.
On the field, the Rams defenders scared the daylights out of opponents and Olsen was so consistently good that he was voted to the Pro Bowl 14 times.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is football, as demonstrated by Merlin Olsen of the Rams pic.twitter.com/E759dMWR41
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) July 14, 2020
After he retired, Olsen began a second career as a television broadcaster and he was also a successful actor.
Sadly, in 2009 Olsen was diagnosed with cancer and would pass away from the disease a year later.
This is the story of Merlin Olsen.
Growing Up in Utah
Merlin Jay Olsen was born on September 15, 1940 in Logan, Utah.
Lynn and Merle Olsen then decided it was time to put down roots and returned to Logan.
The Olsen family, complete with nine children, moved into a three bedroom, one bathroom house.
Lynn and Merle also opened their home to neighbors, their neighbors’ children, and students on holiday that Merle brought home from his job as a professor at Utah State University.
“We had nine of us, but my mother raised half the neighborhood,” Phil Olsen said in 2017.
Feeding the Olsen brood was nearly a full-time job, but the family pitched in together to make it work.
“We did it all like a factory,” recalled Merlin in 1981. “We’d drive a truck up into Idaho and haul back a ton of potatoes. We’d can 1,600 quarts of peaches a season on an assembly-line basis, washing and peeling and slicing, passing them along from hand to hand. My folks would buy 100 chickens at a time, and we’d line everybody up and prepare the chickens for the freezer. And in season, we’d add elks and venison—I was only seven when I first helped Dad pack deer out of the woods.”
Olsen Develops his Football Skills
As the second oldest of the Olsen kids, Merlin desperately wanted to play sports when he wasn’t playing with his siblings.
However, when he was a freshman at Logan High School, Olsen was cut from the school’s basketball team.
Things didn’t get much better as a sophomore when he couldn’t make the cut as a football player for the Grizzlies.
“I was a bust, I couldn’t make a team. I couldn’t get on a roster and I’d go out for every team they had in the school and I couldn’t last past the first practice,” Olsen told NFL Films years later.
Olsen’s parents epitomized perseverance and a can-do attitude and it rubbed off on Merlin.
He pushed himself to excel as an athlete and finally made the Logan High football team.
“He just kept trying and was very determined, focused and was willing to put in the effort to be where he wanted to be,” Orrin Olsen said in 2017.
It helped that Merlin was beginning to resemble the hulking mass he would become in the NFL, shooting well past six-feet and tipping the scales at over 200 pounds.
When he got the hang of the sport, Olsen was nearly unstoppable on the gridiron.
“I finally was able to start playing and I had all this pent-up frustration. And that gave me enough fuel to last for a long, long time,” said Olsen.
As he neared graduation, Olsen had an opportunity to attend Stanford as the school wanted him not only for his brawn but his brains.
— Coach D.J. Tialavea 🇦🇸🇺🇸 (@DjTialavea_86) June 24, 2020
There was no doubt he had the ability to play ball, but Olsen developed a love for learning from his parents and it showed in his report cards.
Although Stanford would have benefitted from Olsen on the field and in the classroom, he decided to stay near home and attend Utah State University.
Olsen Dominates as an Aggie
During his freshman year, Olsen was not allowed to participate in varsity athletics due to NCAA rules.
To bide his time, he got involved in campus life and devoted himself to studying the Aggies playbook.
Olsen got on the field as a sophomore in 1959 and developed into a solid offensive and defensive tackle.
Utah State went 5-6 under head coach John Ralston and Olsen received his first varsity letter.
Anchored in the memories of Merlin Olsen and the traditions of our past.
𝐓𝐡𝐞 𝐀𝐠𝐠𝐢𝐞 𝐁𝐥𝐮𝐞 & 𝐅𝐢𝐠𝐡𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐖𝐡𝐢𝐭𝐞. pic.twitter.com/UIWaKNWJNe
— USU Football (@USUFootball) August 11, 2023
In 1960, Olsen’s six-foot-five inch, 270-pound frame dwarfed many opponents and he deflated the will of anyone assigned to him.
“He was the best blocker I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been around football for a lot of years,” Ralston said. “You’d just run your running back right behind him. He could do it all. You’d play him 60 minutes, and the last minute would be as good as the first minute.”
While the Aggies were improving to 9-2 (which included a loss in the Sun Bowl to New Mexico State), Olsen was recognized as one of the best linemen in college football.
He received several awards including All-Conference, All-American, and his second varsity letter.
Outland Trophy Winner
When he wasn’t knocking heads, Olsen applied himself in the classroom, was a member of the university’s ROTC program, and also belonged to the Sigma Chi fraternity.
“He was just a natural, big, strong leader,” Olsen’s USU friend, Ross Peterson, said. “He could have been successful at anything, not just because of his brain power, but his will to do well.”
On the football field, Olsen made sure his senior year would be one to remember.
In 1961, he was part of an Aggies defense that held their foes to 7.8 points per game.
That mark was actually slightly worse than in 1960 when Olsen and his teammates held opponents to 6.5 points per game.
During a contest against the University of Idaho, the USU defense pitched a 69-0 shutout and held the Vandals to only 23 total yards.
The Aggies went 9-1-1 and met the Baylor Bears in the Gotham Bowl in New York City.
🏈 Dec. 9, 1961: Sub Don Trull has a TD run and pass as Baylor upsets Merlin Olsen and unbeaten No. 10 Utah State, 24-9, in the Gotham Bowl. pic.twitter.com/2nBADTun3U
— BaylorSportsPast (@sicemsportspast) December 10, 2017
Surprisingly, even though Baylor entered the contest with a losing record, the Bears stunned the Aggies, 24-9.
Despite the loss, USU ended the ‘61 season ranked 10th in the nation, the highest ranking ever for the program.
Olsen was again named All-Conference and received a consensus All-American designation.
He also took home the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the country.
Greatest #GroupofFive Players of All Time 🏈
Utah State: Merlin Olsen, DL (1959-61))
High school: Logan High School (Logan, UT)
2x AP All-American ('60, '61)
Outland Trophy ('61)
NFL Rookie of the Year ('62)
10x NFL All-Pro ('63-70, '73-75)
NFL 100th Anniversary Team#AAC #CUSA… pic.twitter.com/n9Xir6YseZ
— stadiumtalkcom (@stadiumtalkcom) September 8, 2023
Perhaps even more impressive, while he was at Utah State, Olsen was a three-time Academic All-American and graduated summa cum laude and was a member of Phi Kappa Phi with a 3.64 GPA in Finance.
Olsen would eventually bring home a master’s degree in Economics from USU in 1971.
He was later inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the GTE Academic All-American Hall of Fame, the State of Utah’s Sports Hall of Fame, Utah State University’s Sports Hall of Fame and named a member of USU’s All-Century Football Team.
First Round Pick
Olsen’s legitimacy as one of the nation’s best linemen was confirmed when he was invited to play in the Hula Bowl, East-West Shrine Game, and the Chicago All-Star Game.
His performance in the Hula Bowl was so outstanding that Olsen was named the game’s MVP.
Needing to drastically overhaul its roster, the Los Angeles Rams were well aware of Olsen’s game changing ability and selected him with the third overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft.
(He was the first USU player to be drafted in the first round).
The Denver Broncos of the American Football League also wanted Olsen and took him with the second overall pick of the AFL Draft.
Olsen took his time considering both offers and chose a contract with the Rams.
At first it looked like a poor choice as LA had won 10 games total the previous three years.
Then, in Olsen’s rookie season, the Rams won a single game under head coach Bob Waterfield and interim coach Harland Svare.
After playing on both sides of the ball at Utah State, Olsen was made a defensive tackle for LA.
Once in a while, Merlin Olsen needed oxygen to deal with how awesome this Rams uniform was. pic.twitter.com/T5CJlv5CcX
— SportsPaper (@SportsPaperInfo) January 24, 2019
He started every game and proved to be a natural in the NFL.
The league didn’t keep track of tackles and sacks at the time, but a recent effort was undertaken to account for unofficial sacks for players going back to 1960.
Olsen had 3.5 unofficial sacks in 1962 as well as an interception he returned for 20 yards for his one and only NFL touchdown.
“After a few games I knew I was going to be able to compete,” Olsen said of becoming a pro. “The idea of being a star never crossed my mind.”
Olsen was then voted to the first of 14 consecutive Pro Bowls and was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“The Fearsome Foursome”
The Rams may have been one of the worst franchises in the NFL at the time, but it also happened to have one of the most intimidating defensive lines in all of football.
When Olsen arrived in 1962, LA already had defensive ends Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones.
In 1963, the franchise made a trade with the New York Giants for defensive tackle Rosey Grier.
For the next few years, the quartet obliterated any ball carrier within spitting distance.
Merlin Olsen #74, Deacon Jones #75, Rosey Grier #76, Lamar Lundy #85. The Fearsome Foursome of the 1960’s Los Angeles Rams. One of the greatest collection of Defensive Linemen in the history of the NFL. pic.twitter.com/g3ab0npUyV
— Cool Old Sports (@CoolOldSports) April 19, 2023
Opponents assigned to Olsen tried everything within reason (and many times without reason) to stop him.
Even the cheap shots didn’t bother Olsen and he simply played his game without getting angry.
“You never could rouse him. Never could make him mad. … A couple of times, I’d say ‘Merlin, let me handle this turkey,'” Jones told NFL Films. “There’d be guys holding him or biting him or doing something crazy and Merlin won’t retaliate that way.”
Jones may have gotten more publicity as an intimidating end who first coined the term “sack,” but he marveled at Olsen’s ability.
“Merlin had superhuman strength,” said Jones. “If I was beating my man inside, he’d hold him up and free me to make the tackle. If he had to make an adjustment to sacrifice his life and limb, he would make it.”
The Foursome were so fearsome that they helped the Rams lead the NFL in sacks or in rushing defense during their short four-year run together.
LA Rams Fearsome Foursome: Lamar Lundy, Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen, Rosey Grier pic.twitter.com/BbsLZFc5BL
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) May 30, 2020
Olsen himself is credited, unofficially, with 20.5 sacks from 1963 through the 1966 season.
“Our philosophy was that they can’t double team all four of us,” Olsen said. “Somebody will be one on one and he’ll get to the quarterback. There were times, though, when teams would double team all four of us, or change their blocking patterns just to hold us down-which was a nice compliment.”
Unfortunately, between 1963 and 1966 when the Foursome played together, the Rams struggled.
The only year the team posted a winning record was in 1966 when new coach George Allen led LA to an 8-6 season.
“I wouldn’t put the knock on anyone in particular but if you analyzed our defensive stats you don’t see how it happened,” Olsen explained. “We had so many rookies behind the line who just weren’t good football players. If we were blessed with a complete defensive team, as we were later on, we could have dominated people unmercifully. The number of sacks we got came despite the fact that there were always receivers open.”
The Rams Start Winning
In 1967, Grier tore his Achilles tendon and was forced to retire, leaving Olsen, Jones, and Lundy to hold down the fort.
To fill in the hole left by Grier, the Rams traded for Detroit Lions defensive tackle Roger Brown.
At last, the Rams in 1967 had a good core of players who kept the team competitive.
While the new Fearsome Foursome led the defense, the offense was led by quarterback Roman Gabriel.
— FTNFantasy (@FTNFantasy) June 25, 2023
LA started the season by winning its first three games before ending the year with an 11-1-2 record.
The Rams then suffered a disappointing 28-7 loss to Green Bay in the Conference playoffs.
Olsen had 3.5 sacks in ‘67 then collected nine sacks in 1968.
In 1969, the franchise returned to the playoffs after an 11-3 regular season, but were tossed again in the first round by Minnesota, 23-20.
Olsen had perhaps his finest year as a pro when he took down quarterbacks 11 times.
The Rams Gain Another Olsen
Olsen’s success as a college and pro football player inspired his younger brothers to play the sport.
In 1971, after a great career of his own at Utah State, and becoming a 1970 first-round pick by the Boston Patriots, Phil Olsen joined Merlin in a trade.
After getting drafted by the Pats, Phil injured his knee and missed his rookie year.
Aggie legends Merlin Olsen and Phil Olsen while playing with the L.A. Rams together. They got to play side by side in the NFL for a few years. Larger than life. pic.twitter.com/ZAMgrv4CLd
— Hans Olsen (@975Hans) January 13, 2019
He was then sent to the Rams and started alongside Merlin in 1971 and 1972.
“It’s the only time in NFL history that brothers played side by side, so that was special,” Phil said.
By the time Phil Olsen joined the team, Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones were the only remaining players from the original “Fearsome Foursome.”
More help arrived in the form of Jack Youngblood, who became a member of the defensive line as a first-round selection in the 1971 NFL Draft.
Both Olsens, Jones, and Youngblood led the Rams to an eighth overall defensive ranking while going 8-5-1.
In 1972, the defense slipped to 16th overall although Merlin Olsen had 10 sacks.
Going Out on a High Note
Before the 1973 season began, the Rams hired Chuck Knox, a former offensive line coach for the Detroit Lions.
LA had a new quarterback in John Hadl and a great defensive line led by the Olsen brothers, Youngblood and defensive end Fred Dryer.
The defense rose to fourth overall in the NFL while Merlin Olsen bagged seven sacks, Youngblood accounted for 16.5 and Dryer added 10 of his own.
-Drafted 3rd Overall by the #Rams, Drafted 2nd overall (AFL)
-15 years, started every game (208)
-14x Pro Bowl
-5x 1st team All Pro
–@ProFootballHOF Class of 1982#BrawlNetwork pic.twitter.com/pL7uAgc1Vn
— Rams Brawl ™️ (@RamsBrawl) July 1, 2020
LA started the year winning six straight before ending the season at 12-2.
In the divisional round, Dallas eliminated the Rams with a 27-16 win.
Putting that disappointment behind them, LA returned to the playoffs and advanced to the NFC Championship game the next three years.
Unfortunately, even with Olsen accounting for 14 total sacks between 1974 and 1976, the Rams lost in their bid for a Super Bowl.
When the 1976 season ended, Olsen decided to hang up his cleats after 15 years.
“There’s a tendency among football players to ride too long with their success,” he said in 1981. “They always have a vague notion in their minds: ‘I’ll just retire someday and become president of IBM,’ or something like that. They can’t make the transition from football to the real world. They lose their identity and it destroys them; it’s happened to so many of my friends.”
During his stellar career, Olsen started nearly every game, missing only two.
He had 91 unofficial sacks, nine fumble recoveries, one interception, and one pick-six.
Olsen was a 14-time Pro Bowler (which was a record at the time), a 10-time All-Pro, and NFL Rookie of the Year.
Merlin Olsen appeared in more Pro Bowls (14) than any defensive player in NFL history.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) September 15, 2023
Olsen was named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team, the 1970s All-Decade Team, the NFL’s 75th Anniversary and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams.
Additionally, he is a member of the St. Louis Rams’ Ring of Honor and his number 74 has been retired by the organization.
Olsen was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
In 1976, Merlin’s final NFL season, younger brother Orrin Olsen was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in the eighth round of the NFL Draft.
“When Orrin was playing in the middle of the 1970s, it’s one of the few times in NFL history that three brothers were all playing at the same time,” Phil Olsen said in 2017.
Not long after Merlin Olsen retired, Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom commented on Olsen’s time with the team.
“The thing about him that I find remarkable is never once have I ever heard him say a negative word about anybody, in any circumstance,” Rosenbloom said. “I just remember having a lot of admiration and respect for him, because he was a unique guy on the team, just the kind of person he is — gentle and wonderful, and treated everybody so well.”
As he was winding down his playing career, Olsen was analytical about what he wanted to do next.
“I figured it this way, like a problem in reasoning,” said Olsen in 1981. “First, my personal needs. I was accustomed to the spotlight, therefore I couldn’t go into corporate anonymity. Then, I was accustomed to making pretty big money; I wanted that to continue, of course. And, finally, I wanted something that offered both challenge and pressure. It shook down to only two possibilities: broadcasting and acting. When you think of the logic involved, it was an easy decision.”
Olsen impressed the executives at NBC and became an NFL color commentator for the network.
Merlin and Phil Olsen called games together for a number of years before Merlin was paired with Dick Enberg.
Excellence was guaranteed when you saw Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen in the booth. pic.twitter.com/nQlHBEx0iC
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) November 5, 2021
During his career as a broadcaster, Olsen was known for his meticulous preparation and even-keeled nature.
Enberg later remarked that Olsen was, “a man of goodness, eager to consciously do the right thing for himself, while helping others.”
When he wasn’t scrutinizing football games, Olsen could be found acting in a number of favorite television shows.
He first caught the acting bug when he appeared in the John Wayne movie The Undefeated in 1969.
Olsen acted in other programs before being contacted by filmmaker Michael Landon.
Only 5 men have ever made 14 pro bowls in NFL history.
Merlin Olsen was a great player and actor. Do you remember him from Little House on The Prairie? pic.twitter.com/1vDgWTnuEK
— Miles Commodore (@miles_commodore) October 9, 2022
Landon wanted Olsen to become a cast member in his show Little House on the Prairie, beginning in 1977
Olsen was a natural for the part of Jonathan Garvey and remained on the program for several years.
He then had his own show called Father Murphy and was a spokesman for several companies, most notably with FTD Florists.
In his later years, Olsen and his wife, Susan, spent time with their three children, Kelly, Jill, and Nathan and their large extended family.
The Olsen’s also gave back to Utah State University through financial and fundraising gifts.
In 2009, USU announced that it was naming its football field Merlin Olsen Field in his honor.
#ThrowbackThursday to 2009 when USU announced the field at Maverik Stadium (then Romney Stadium) would be named after alumnus Merlin J. Olsen. Following his death in 2010, a statue was built in his honor. 🏈💙 pic.twitter.com/Xnl6UEhw5h
— Utah State Alumni (@UtahStateAlumni) May 7, 2020
That same year, Olsen shared that he was suffering from cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
He believed that the exposure occurred during his time working in television and Olsen sued NBC Studios, NBC Universal and others for causing his cancer.
Then, on March 11, 2010, Olsen passed away due to the effects of peritoneal mesothelioma.
He was 69 years old.
“I can’t think of anyone who has graduated from Utah State University who has accomplished more in a broader array of fields than Merlin Olsen,” said Utah State University President Stan Albrecht. “His distinctive and powerful voice will be remembered for the breadth of its influence and by the impact it has had in so many different facets of our lives.”
After his passing, USU erected a statue of Olsen that was placed outside of Romney Stadium.