Friday, March 12, 2010

Another Piece of Childhood Gone ...RIP Merlin Olsen

When I heard the news of his death late last evening, I immediately thought about the three, or four, generations that would only know of Merlin Olsen from his role on "Little House on the Prairie".

Or, maybe. those incongruous FTD commercials.

Those of us slightly older, have a whole different recollection.

Merlin Olsen; Fearsome Foursome anchor became TV actor and NBC commentator

Merlin Olsen, the Hall of Fame tackle who anchored the Los Angeles Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, the line that glamorized defensive play in the NFL, died early yesterday at a hospital in Duarte, Calif. He was 69.

His brother Orrin announced his death, saying Mr. Olsen had been treated for mesothelioma, a form of cancer.

Mr. Olsen was also a longtime color commentator for NBC’s pro football and Rose Bowl telecasts, working with Dick Enberg, and he acted on television, most prominently as the very large and bearded Jonathan Garvey in NBC’s “Little House on the Prairie’’ and in his own series, “Father Murphy.’’

The Rams of the mid-1960s were renowned for defensive linemen who earned a collective nickname a decade before the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain.


Mr. Olsen believed that the Fearsome Foursome could have excelled in any era.

“What made the Foursome unique, I think, is that we could have fit in extremely comfortably in the modern game,’’ he told The Orange County Register in 1997. He estimated that the line’s average weight was 275 pounds and said that “there was not a weight lifter in the group.’’

“Imagine how big we’d be today,’’ he added.

“We could all run,’’ Mr. Olsen said. “The other thing we had going for us was a rare chemistry. There was also a very special kind of unselfishness.’’

As a youth in the 1960's, despite growing up in Boston, the lowly AFL, and woeful Boston Patriots, were not on our radar.

We were NFL, baby, all the way.

And, after a brief flirt, with the mid-60's Dallas Cowboys (chiefly due to Chuck Howley, Bob Lily and, at the time, the world's fastest human, Bob Hayes), the Los Angeles Rams became our favorite team, and specifically due to the legendary "Fearsome Foursome" that Merlin Olsen helped anchor.

Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier (who would, in 1968, be on the tragic scene, as one of Bobby Kennedy's bodyguards) and Lamar Lundy, there wasn't a better front defensive four in the game, and along with movie-star-looks QB Roman Gabriel, RB Dick Bass, and receivers like Bernie Casey (another LA Ram who would go on to a film and television career), and Jack Snow, the Rams of the late 1960's and very early 1970's were poised to go all the way.

But the brass ring, the newly-created Super Bowl, eluded the LA Rams, thwarted by a new rival out of the frozen tundra, the Minnesota Vikings, and their soon-to-be-legendary front four, the Purple People Eaters (though, the Vikings would go on to lose four Super Bowls).

Whether you remember Olsen as "Jonathan Garvey", or one of the Fearsome Foursome that terrified NFL quarterbacks, it's a sad day, another piece from the childhood memory block chipped away.

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