Football, TV and Utah legend Merlin Olsen dies at 69

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SALT LAKE CITY -- He was feared on the football field, loved on TV and admired by those who knew him best. The classic "gentle giant," Merlin Olsen, one of Utah's most famous and well-respected native sons, died overnight at a hospital near Los Angeles after a courageous battle with cancer.

Olsen was a Pro Football Hall of Famer and beloved actor. His alma mater, Utah State University, called him the greatest athlete in school history. America got to know him better as a Los Angeles Ram and TV star on "Little House on the Prairie."

He was a big man, with big and diverse accomplishments. He fought a year-long battle with mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer. He was 69 years old, and compiled an incredible list of accomplishments without ever blowing his own horn.

Biography highlights
  • Born Sept. 15, 1940 in Logan
  • Graduated Utah State University in 1962
  • Played defensive tackle for Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League, 1962-1976.
  • Played for the Rams from 1971-1974
  • Was an original member of the Los Angeles "Fearsome Foursome"
  • In 1977, he played Michael Landon's sidekick Jonathan Garvey on "Little House on the Prairie."
  • From 1981 to 1983 he starred in his own series "Father Murphy"
  • Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
  • Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
  • He did the voice-over for FTD commercials, as well as commercials for syndicated airings of "The X-Files."
  • Merlin Olsen Field will be the new name of the turf inside Romney Stadium at USU.

Olsen was born in Logan. He played football, basketball and performed in plays at Logan High School.

His football career at Utah State University was legendary, and he was named college football's best lineman in 1961. Olsen was a three-time academic All-American and graduated summa cum laude in 1962.

At that time, Olsen hadn't thought much about professional football.

"Until I was maybe a junior in college, and suddenly all the scouts are saying, 'You're going to be drafted very high into the pro ranks.' I'm saying, 'I am?'" Olsen told KSL News in a 1987 interview later featured on "Hometown Heroes."

Olsen was the third overall pick in 1962. He became a charter member of the Los Angeles Rams and the famed "Fearsome Foursome."

Rosey Grier, one of the "Fearsome Foursome," remembers Olsen more for what he did beyond the football field.

"I really admired him for the way he spent time with his family," Grier said. "The thing he always had was going places, riding a bicycle or doing all those things."

In 15 professional seasons, he was named to an NFL-record 14 Pro Bowls and missed a total of two games during his career.

Chip Rosenbloom, majority owner of the St. Louis Rams, said Olsen will never be forgotten in Rams history.

"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."

Olsen retired from professional football in 1976 and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. Olsen is still the Rams' all time leader in career tackles.


"There's an intensity there, an excitement that seems to give you the feeling that you've lived for years in just a brief period of time," he said in 1987.

Olsen wasted no time moving on to successful careers as sports commentator and TV actor -- first as Jon Garvey in "Little House on the Prairie," then as "Father Murphy."

"It's not just a single identity that I've ended up with," he said. "It's a multitude of different identities which all focus into one."

Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls Wilder in the TV series "Little House on the Prairie," released a statement Thursday, saying: "I adored Merlin Olsen from the moment I first saw him...towering high above my teeny little self. He was a giant both in football and in life." [CLICK HERE to read Gilbert's entire statement]

Many also respected Olsen as a tireless philanthropist. He gave enormous amounts of time, talent and financial resources to numerous causes across the country. He was an original co-host of the Children's Miracle Network Telethon, and continued in that role raising money for children's hospitals until 1998.

Even though he lived in Southern California during his adult life, he always called Utah home. Olsen said he wanted to be remembered as a pro in whatever he did. He reveled in tackling the next project, and living his dreams.

"In many ways, I've really been lucky, because I've been able to do the things I wanted to do."

He is survived by his wife, Susan, and three adult children.

Last December, USU officials announced that in honor of Olsen they would name the Aggies' football field after him.


Story compiled with contributions from Jed Boal and Alex Cabrero.


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