'Fearsome' reputation aside, Olsen was big man with bigger heart

Merlin Olsen -- who passed away early Thursday at the age of 69 -- spent his NFL career as a defensive tackle, which, by definition, meant he was supposed to be feared on the field.

And he was.

The line on which Olsen played for the Los Angeles Rams was, in fact, known as the "Fearsome Foursome." In 15 seasons, he delivered plenty of punishing hits to quarterbacks and running backs, enough to make 14 Pro Bowl appearances and rightfully earn his spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Yet, there was a stark difference between the football player and the man.

Away from the game, Olsen was the consummate gentle giant. Hollywood got that right when, for a 1969 movie starring John Wayne titled "The Undefeated," Olsen was cast as a hulking Confederate Army corporal/blacksmith named "Little George." He is supposed to be an intimidating presence... until the scene where he's playing ring-around-the-rosy with a bunch of children. Olsen's former Rams teammate, quarterback Roman Gabriel, also had a part in the movie, which was shot while they still played in the NFL.

That was my first glimpse of the other side of Olsen. The second came a few years later when, while in junior high school, I had the pleasure of meeting him.

The Rams were the last NFL team I followed strictly as a fan, and my dad took me to see them play on Oct. 15, 1972, in Philadelphia. After the game, I waited near a line of chartered buses waiting to carry the Rams to the airport. Olsen saw me standing there with a program and pen in hand, and without my saying a word, he promptly obliged me with an autograph.

Olsen also spent a few minutes listening to me talk about how big a Rams fan I was. He asked me where I was from and made more small talk than I ever expected one of my true childhood heroes would ever be willing to make, especially after a hard day at the office.

Remembering a gentle giant

As vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys from 1960-89, Gil Brandt remembers the career of Merlin Olsen. Check out his reflections on the Rams great. More ...

Olsen's post-football acting career would lead to a successful television-series run as Jonathan Garvey in "Little House on the Prairie" and in his own show as the title character in "Father Murphy." His gentle-giant persona also would result in his becoming a natural spokesman for FTD Florists. I mean, if any big, tough-looking guy could get away with selling flowers, it was Olsen.

But it was a mistake to confuse Olsen for being some sort of softie. Former NFL guard Conrad Dobler -- once crowned football's dirtiest player -- found that out. Dobler would repeatedly unleash the full extent of his illegal tactics on Olsen. Finally, Olsen had enough. During a game, Olsen and former Rams teammate Jack Youngblood set out to get revenge on Dobler. Their ploy didn't end up working, but the attempt was indicative of the competitive fire that burned inside of Olsen.

I crossed paths with Olsen many times earlier in my football writing career while he was an NFL analyst for NBC. And Olsen was the same every time I saw him: Polite, approachable, always making himself available for a friendly conversation or to be interviewed.

On the air, Olsen offered superb insights. He was fair, but willing to call it as he saw it.

As a player, actor, and broadcaster, Olsen remained true to himself. He will be dearly missed by the people who had the pleasure to get to know him. I consider myself fortunate to be one of them.

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