Merlin Olsen: American footballer who went from the 'Fearsome Foursome' to 'Little House on the Prairie'

Sunday 23 October 2011 04:21

British viewers of Little House On The Prairie were probably unaware that Merlin Olsen, who played the huge bearded lumberjack Jonathan Garvey, was one of the greatest linemen in the history of America's National Football League (NFL). As the cornerstone of a four-man defensive front so intimidating it was known as the "Fearsome Foursome", Olsen enjoyed a 15-year career during which he never missed a game. He was named to the Pro Bowl all-star game a record 14 consecutive times and selected first-team all-pro six times. At 6ft 4in and 275lb, his quickness meant he could beat offensive linemen individually, while his massive strength allowed him to tie up multiple blockers, freeing his linemates, particularly his fellow Hall of Fame member Deacon Jones, to rush the opposing passer.

Olsen grew up in Utah's Cache Valley, the second of nine children and the oldest son in a strict Mormon family. Two of his brothers would also play in the NFL, one of them, Phil, as his team-mate for four seasons. Merlin stayed at home to attend Utah State, not a football power. Playing both offensive and defensive tackle, he led the Aggies to two post-season bowl games, a No 10 ranking, and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman. He also graduated with highest honours in finance.

The Rams, then based in Los Angeles, picked Olsen third in the 1962 draft. He chose the security of the established NFL over a bigger contract offered by Denver of the upstart American Football League (AFL). Playing defensive tackle, with Jones and the 6ft 7in Lamar Lundy at the ends, he was named NFL rookie of the year in 1962. The following season, the Rams acquired the massive tackle Roosevelt Grier from the New York Giants to complete the Fearsome Foursome. Although the nickname had been used before, most notably for the AFL's San Diego Charger line that featured "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd a few years earlier, the Rams made it their own, helped by the legendary Los Angeles sportswriter Jim Murray, who wrote, "they could stop Hitler's tanks. They taught the public to appreciate defense. Guys who play against Olsen have trouble sleeping the night before." If off the field Olsen was a gentle giant, on the field he was fiercely competitive. "Olsen just rolls everybody up like a carpet," said Murray. "Sooner or later the guy with the ball will be under it."

Coach George Allen was a defensive mastermind, but despite regular-season success they were unable to advance to the NFL championship game. After the two leagues merged to create the Super Bowl, Roger Brown replaced Grier and Coy Bacon stepped in for Lundy, but the new coach Chuck Knox couldn't break the pattern of regular-season triumph and play-off failure. Olsen retired in 1976, after a frustrating loss in the conference final; he never played in a championship game.

After retiring, Olsen had a long career as a colour commentator on NFL games and the collegiate Rose Bowl. But thanks to his exposure in Los Angeles, he had made his acting debut in the 1969 John Wayne film The Undefeated. Generally typecast as a gentle giant, he joined Little House in 1977 when Victor French left the series, and stayed until 1981, when he starred for three seasons as a priest in Father Murphy.

After a recurring role in the 1986 series Fathers and Sons, in 1988 he took the title role in the short-lived Aaron's Way, the Mormon Olsen now playing an Amish father who moves to California to take care of his son's family after the son's death surfing. As his acting career slowed down he became a familiar pitchman on American television.

As well as being named to the NFL's all-time team in 1994, Olsen was also chosen as Utah's athlete of the century in 2000. Last year, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and while receiving chemotherapy filed lawsuits against the NBC television network for exposing him to asbestos. He is survived by his wife Susan and three children, and two of the Fearsome Foursome, Jones and Grier.

Michael Carlson

Merlin Jay Olsen, American football player, broadcaster and actor: born Logan, Utah 15 September 1940; married 1962 Susan Wakley (two daughters, one son); died Duarte, California 11 March 2010.

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