Palo Alto: The running joke at 3333 Park Blvd., where Coy Gibbs and Nathan Olsen lived last year in undergraduate squalor with Cline and Jimmy Klein (yup, another one, the son of former Ram and San Diego Charger tight end Bob Klein), was that Olsen could always be found sunk in the couch. "Nate would be happy anywhere, as long as there's TV," says Gibbs. That seems only natural for a kid whose dad was not only a football hero but also a television actor.
But the one thing Olsen will never be found watching is reruns of Little House on the Prairie, in which his father appeared for four years. "I really don't like that show," Olsen says. "Every show, someone dies or something tragic happens. That show is such a downer."
Upon hearing this news, his father nods resignedly. "I suspect Father Murphy [a Little House spin-off] was more Nate's type of show, more of an action show," Merlin Olsen says.
This aversion to Little House is one of Nathan's two brushes with rebellion. The other occurred during his junior year at San Marino (Calif.) High when his father volunteered to coach the defensive line, which included Nathan. "I loved it when my father gave me stuff at home, but I didn't really like it when he came to practice," says Nathan. Merlin's work with the teenage linemen was hands-on, including, in Merlin's words, "ripping an occasional forearm." But it took the intercession of Nathan's mother, Susan, to quiet his apprehension about his father's direct involvement. She says, "I told him, 'Nathan, don't you think your dad knows more than a high school coach?' "
Well, actually, no. Merlin retired from the Rams in 1976, when Nathan was three years old. "To me," recalls Nathan, "my father was an actor." But Nathan's summary of Merlin's coaching episode shows his character. "It made our team better," he says, "so it was the right thing to do."
Nathan has made Stanford better too, at the cost of continuity in his own career. As a sophomore two years ago, he was moved from defensive lineman to blocking fullback. Then last spring Olsen was moved to inside linebacker, perhaps his most natural position. But this is his last year of eligibility, because a potential red-shirt freshman season was wasted when he was sent into the third quarter of a 28-21 loss to Colorado. "That was ridiculous," says Coy Gibbs. "I think I would have come up with a pulled hamstring right on the spot. But Nate has handled it incredibly well."
Says Olsen, "The coach called my name. I wasn't about to say no." This selfless acceptance of team needs bespeaks a player from another era. Phil Olsen, Merlin's 46-year-old younger brother, who himself logged six years in the NFL, says, "If you could take Nathan back to 1958, he would be a phenomenal defensive lineman. The prototype has changed. I'm not sure if Merlin came along now, he would have the same success. It's unfair, because Nathan truly loves the game."
In that, he is truly Merlin's son. During summers spent on Bear Lake along the Idaho-Utah border, in a cabin built by Nathan's great-great-grandfather, Nathan and Merlin fish and golf together almost daily. And that woodland setting brings us back to Father Murphy. "Oh, I liked that show a lot," Nathan says. "Much more upbeat."
Seattle: During a brief pause in a high school track meet at a suburban community college, Charle Young turns from his seat in the bleachers to answer a greeting. "I saw you play many, many times," a man says admiringly. "And, by the way, how did your daughter do?"
"She qualified," says Young without emotion. What he means is, qualified for the finals of the 100-meter dash. The daughter in question is 15-year-old Candace, a freshman at Seattle's Garfield High who later took four firsts at the state Class AA championship meet and soon will be sought by every powerhouse in college track. The word qualified does not begin to describe her talents.