Merlin & Me

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.

9 Replies to “Merlin & Me”

  1. Thaaks! I was one of those kids trying to tackle Merlin – we ultimately failed. I did it for two years and the biggest moment for me was being taught how to really throw a ball by Roman Gabriel.

  2. Nice story but 31-19 is not an almost, 1980 STEELERS FTW!!!

    (waving terrible towel as I type)

  3. Michael, Oh ye of the convenient “let’s judge a game by its final score” faith.

    Maybe not “almost,” but it was closer than any sane person expected. It was a shocker that the oh-so-lowly 9-7 regularly season Rams had the lead into the 4th quarter against powerhouse Pittsburgh who had to come from behind to beat them.

  4. They were just making it exciting. Ya know, for the ratings. Seriously, I remember almost peeing my pants when Swann made the go ahead catch.

    Since we can’t agree to love the Steelers lets agree to both hate the Cowboys;-)

    Two funny things…….
    1. I still have the Lynn Swann jersey I was wearing while I watched that game.
    2. I made my own Terrible Towel but in my excitement I misspelled Towle;-)

  5. Michael, For obvious abandonment issues, I’ve been a Steelers since 1980 much more than I’ve a been a Rams fan. And yes, anyone who beats dem Cowboys is a OK in my book.

  6. Will, I absolutely love this story. I’m a huge football fan – Steelers, natch – and while I didn’t “know” Merlin Olsen as a football player I loved him a Jonathan Garvey on “Little House.” Thanks for sharing.

  7. What’s important is not who won the 1980 SB but how much we hate the Cowboys. Glad we can agree to hate together;-)

  8. Thanks pittrollie! I, too, greatly enjoyed Olsen’s transition and success with acting. In an interesting coincidence, Kevin Hagen who played Doc Baker on “Little House” lived in the apartment building next door to my mom and me at the time of my sports camp trip. In fact, I can remember watching the series premiere at his place.

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