A field for Merlin

A field for Merlin

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By Kurt Kragthorpe
Special to Profootballhof.com.

THE MOMENT CALLED FOR ONE of those classic Merlin Olsen voiceovers.

USU’s seemingly immortal, larger-than-life figure, his trademark beard now gray and his body shrinking as concessions to age and illness, walked slowly to the middle of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum court Dec. 5 as a sellout crowd of 10,270 stood and cheered.

The scene was both reassuring and stunning, celebratory and sobering, amid the realization that there was a reason the legendary Aggie football player was being honored during a basketball game. His legacy will include the naming of Merlin Olsen Field at Romney Stadium, a statue on the facility’s southeast plaza and a scholarship endowment.

“I share this special honor with great coaches and teammates,” Olsen said in a USU news release. “Remembering those days brings to mind some of the happiest and most productive days of my life.”

Olsen, 69, is being treated for a form of cancer. Because of the illness, USU President Stan Albrecht acknowledged during a news conference, there was “some urgency” for the school and Olsen’s family to stage the observance, with the official dedication of the field and statue actually scheduled to take place during the 2010 football season.

So, amid the trials of his illness, the defensive linemen whose fierce, aggressive pass-rushing style once held NFL quarterbacks perpetually edgy, put on his game face and gave perhaps one of his greatest performances, walking to center court and smiling and waving to fans at halftime of the basketball game against Saint Mary’s, during a brief program that included a video tribute and the announcement of USU’s plans for the football stadium.

During a dinner at the nearby stadium’s end-zone complex, Olsen spoke fondly of meeting his wife, Susan, during his USU days. Albrecht was struck by “that incredible voice,” made famous by Olsen’s broadcasting, acting, commercial and charitable efforts. “We’ve all been touched by that voice in some way,” Albrecht said.

The connection is strong in Olsen’s native Cache Valley, where — nearly 50 years after his college career ended in the Gotham Bowl in New York — the Outland Trophy winner as the country’s best lineman remains the symbol of what Aggie football once was and can again become.

Olsen became a consensus All-America tackle and an Academic All-American as a senior finance major in 1961, when the Aggies led the nation by allowing only 50.8 rushing yards and 7.8 points per game. USU went 18-3-1 in his last two seasons, appearing in two bowl games in an era of few postseason opportunities. The 1960 Sun Bowl team will have a 50th anniversary celebration as part of the Olsen-centered dedication ceremony at the stadium during the 2010 season.

There’s a tendency to inflate the exploits of athletes long after their playing days end, but that’s just about impossible to do in Olsen’s case. John Ralston, the coach of those great Aggie teams, went on to have more success at Stanford and in the NFL, and he raves about Olsen to this day. Back then, players stayed on the field for most of the game, playing both offense and defense. For those who picture Olsen strictly as a defensive tackle in the NFL, it is almost confusing to hear Ralston’s recollections of him.

"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. 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."
-Caroll Rosenbloom

“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.”

In the NFL, Olsen became a consistently outstanding player on one of the best defensive lines in pro football history: the Los Angeles Rams’ legendary “Fearsome Foursome,” joining Deacon Jones, Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy. Olsen’s brother Phil later played alongside him.

Los Angeles Rams, 1962-76. In his 15 seasons, he was selected 14 times for the Pro Bowl and was a six-time All-Pro choice. Having missed only two games in his career, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, his first year of eligibility. In 1999, he was ranked No. 25 on The “Sporting News” list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.

Olsen never played in the Super Bowl, often ending up just short of that championship opportunity, but he did everything else. His storied legacy includes but two jerseys: No. 71 (Utah State) and No. 74 (St. Louis Rams).

Carroll Rosenbloom, the Rams’ owner, tried to persuade Olsen to keep playing, even after those 15 seasons. That’s a testament to the level of Olsen’s game at that stage of his career and his value to the franchise.

“That was a tough moment for him to stand up to my dad and tell him he was ready to retire,” said Chip Rosenbloom, Carroll’s son and now the majority owner of the St. Louis Rams. “My dad was used to winning those arguments.”

Even if Olsen left the Rams wanting more, he’s obviously well remembered. The team honored him again at a Dec. 20 game in St. Louis.

“In Rams history, there are maybe 10 guys who are iconic, and he’s one of them,” Rosenbloom said. “There’s nobody who is more important.”

Former USU teammate Len Rohde, himself an NFL fixture as an offensive tackle with the San Francisco 49ers, often faced those Rams defenses.

While none of the opposing linemen made his life easy, he welcomed not having to block Olsen. “Fortunately for me,” Rohde said, “he was on the other side.” In their USU days, “He had all the ability, as well as the drive and determination,” Rohde said.

Tom Ramage, who assisted Tony Knap with the Aggie linemen, remembers how Olsen’s strength was more than physical, even though he was naturally strong without any of the weightlifting that would later become standard practice in football. He would make technique suggestions to Knap and, frequently, Knap would tell the other linemen, “This is how we’re going to block this.” “He was a thinker,” Ramage said. “He was trying to come up with new stuff all the time, ways to do it better. He was really a fun guy to work with. You had to be on your toes to coach Merlin.”

Playing defense in the Gotham Bowl against Baylor, Olsen noticed how the Bears were trap-blocking teammate Clark Miller, so he would slide over and fill Miller’s hole, Ramage said, citing how Olsen was “always observant.”

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