Art imitates life, it is said, and that was undeniably the case with Merlin Olsen, who died last week at 69 of mesothelioma (a type of cancer affecting the lining of internal organs and associated with asbestos exposure). After a 15-year career as a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Rams, Olsen went into acting, playing a genial farmer on Little House on the Prairie, then an 1870s frontiersman do-gooder in Father Murphy.
"That's who he was in real life," former Rams teammate Jack Youngblood said last Saturday. The good citizen as much as a 14-time Pro Bowl player. Throughout his career, all in L.A., he took it upon himself to teach new players how to play the right way. A 1982 Hall of Fame inductee, he returned to Canton often to work with Hall of Fame Enterprises, which raises money for indigent former players. "He looked at the game and said, 'Darn it, this is wrong,'" Youngblood says. "'We've got to treat retired players better.'"
Another teammate, lineman Tom Mack, once told a story of the Rams preparing for a game in the '70s in which Olsen was scheduled to face a guard with a reputation for dirty play. "This guy scratched and bit and held," said Mack, "and we told Merlin he had to give this guy the same medicine back. He refused. He had a tough game, and afterward he said to us, 'If I ever get a chance to play that guy again, I'll beat him—but I'll beat him fair and square, not cheating.'"
Olsen beat plenty of foes fair and square as one of the players in the Rams' famed Fearsome Foursome. Playing on a line bookended by Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy, with him and Rosey Grier inside, the group combined for 315.5 unofficial sacks. (Sacks stats weren't kept until 1981.) Olsen's bullish presence helped the men to his left—Jones and later Youngblood—earn busts in Canton. The mark of a good teammate is to make those around you better, and Olsen did that during, and after, his life in football.