When I was a Pop Warner-sized punk back in the early-mid ’70s my mom was dating a guy named Jim who was with ABC Wide World of Sports in some capacity and thus he knew a guy named Carroll Rosenbloom who happened to be the owner of a professional football team you may have read about in the history books that used to live and play here (what a concept) called the Los Angeles Rams, which was my fave team, of course, and pretty much as beloved as the Dodgers, up until Rosenbloom drowned in 1979 and his wife Georgia wasted little time and tears moving them to Anaheim the next year after the team triumphed through a strange season to come pretty damn close to winning the 1980 Super Bowl. But that’s another story.
Anyway. One day my mom comes home from work and hands me a pamphlet promoting something called the “Olsen Brothers All-Sports Camp” taking place for a couple weeks that summer in a faraway place called Logan, Utah. On the front is a picture of Merlin Olsen and his brother Phil in their Rams uniforms, the two having played side by side in 1971 and ’72.
“Jim says if you’d like to go, he’ll pay for it,” she said.
I indicating my willingness by jumping up and down screaming joyfully, so too young to have any clue that Jim’s generosity was not only providing a vacation for me from them, but also a vacation for them from me.
And so it was that I flew first class to Utah with Rosenbloom’s son Chip and Rams General Manager Don Klosterman’s son (whose first name I can’t remember) Kurt (thanks for the reminder DK!), and I came to stand eyeballs-to-kneecaps with some of the sports gods of my youth: Jack Youngblood, Harold Jackson, Jack Snow, Jack Reynolds (lotta Jacks going on, eh?). But I worshiped none more than Merlin lordhavemercy Olsen, who was my biggest hero, literally and figuratively.
The fondest memory I have of him at the camp came one afternoon after he and Jack Youngblood had led us through a rigorous clinic on tackling. Afterward for fun, he challenged a group of us to try and tackle him. A couple kids shied away, but I charged at one of his legs, latching on and trying with all my might to bring him down. Then another kid piled on, and another. I’d guess at some point he had like eight of us hanging off him, doing our best to drop him, and all the while he just laughed and couldn’t be budged.
I think it’s that memory of him as this unmoveable mountain of a man that makes it a little more heartbreaking and a little harder for me to reconcile the news today that he was felled by cancer at age 69. We all get old and we all die. But I just wasn’t ready to be blindsidedly reminded of that fact in the form of one of my childhood heroes leaving the living way too soon.
Rest in peace, Merlin Olsen.