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Merlin Olsen: football legend, remarkable human being

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Mike Beacom
Contributing writer

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Posted March 28, 2010 @ 8:11 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

When Los Angeles Rams great Merlin Olsen passed away at the age of 69 earlier this month, the one thing those closest to him spoke most about was how he gave to others. And news story after story reported on the many lives he impacted — an imposing 6-5, 270-pound man with a frame not large enough to house his enormous heart.

For five seasons, Myron Pottios played middle linebacker behind Olsen and the rest of the Fearsome Foursome line that made Los Angeles football famous in the 1960s and '70s. While Pottios admits playing behind that line "was a dream," he, too, only cared to speak of Merlin Olsen, the man.

"He was a gentleman in all phases of life, not just football," Pottios said. "He was always positive, always on the happy side of things."

Olsen is a rare example in professional football history — somebody whose gridiron greatness was overshadowed by his humanity off the field, and not vice versa. Think about Olsen, and this is the order in which we knew him: star defensive lineman-turned television actor-turned broadcaster-turned corporate pitchman-turned humanitarian.

Somewhere, in the long list of hats he wore, Merlin Olsen the Rams' star almost gets lost.

A few highlights not to be forgotten …

  • After his rookie season of 1962 Olsen was invited to his first Pro Bowl; he was asked to make a return visit the next 13 years.
  • Before Olsen arrived in Los Angeles, the Rams were one of the league's worst franchises, with a 10-27-1 record in the three seasons prior. Thanks to the boost provided by Olsen and the rest of the defense, the team made six playoff appearances during his career, including making it to the NFC championship game following the 1974 and '75 seasons.
  • In 15 seasons, Olsen missed just two games — a remarkable statistic considering the era in which he played.
  • In 1974 — his 13th NFL season — Olsen became just the second defensive player to win the Bert Bell Player of the Year Award (only one defender has won it since — Lawrence Taylor, 1986).

The Fearsome Foursome was the greatest front wall football has probably ever witnessed, and the game has witnessed a lot of good ones (particularly in Olsen's era). It was so good, it continued on even after Rosey Grier and Lamar Lundy hung up their cleats. Olsen has never received the same level of respect as Deacon Jones from football historians, but then again tackles aren't supposed to outshine their end counterparts. Still, one has to respect what legendary personnel man Gil Brandt had to say recently when he boasted that Olsen's ability was on par with the best interior defensive linemen of today.

Said Pottios, "He excelled at everything he did, I think mostly because he was so positive and because he never loafed, always gave it his all."

During Olsen's funeral service, former teammate Tom Mack offered the following: "I've never played with anybody who cared more about winning, but yet winning meant nothing if he couldn't win the right way."

Olsen did a lot of things the right way. Better than anything he did, it's apparent he lived life the right way.

Added Pottios, "He touched a lot of lives, and always with the betterment of that person in mind. I know I was very fortunate to have known and played with him."

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