Friday, March 12, 2010

Death of a Role Model

I often hear folks complain about the absence of quality in the famous people their children wish to emulate.

All too often, unfortunately, the athletes that young people admire are greedy or self–centered, not generous and selfless. They are the athletes with the multimillion–dollar contracts, the big houses and the flashy cars who cheated on their spouses or took steroids to gain an unfair advantage over those who played the game straight.

Herb Brooks, who coached the U.S. hockey team to its miraculous gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics, once defined (without realizing it) the characteristic of an athlete that parents should want their children to mimic — "players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back."

Merlin Olsen was such a role model. And he died of mesothelioma yesterday at the age of 69.

Many folks may only know Olsen from his work in television. Like many former athletes, he provided commentary for NFL and college football broadcasts. He was also a star of Little House on the Prairie for many years before starring in his own series, Father Murphy.

All of this came after his 15–year career in pro football, all of it spent with the Los Angeles Rams and much of it spent in the years before most professional sports teams put the player's last name on the back of the jersey.

Olsen also played at a time when defensive units weren't given collective nicknames. But, before Minnesota had the "Purple People Eaters" and Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls with a defense known as the "Steel Curtain," the Rams' front four were known as the "Fearsome Foursome."

A defensive lineman, Olsen was one of the "Fearsome Foursome." And, although that group included such names as Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy and Rosey Grier, Olsen may have inspired the most fear of all. At 6–5 and 270 pounds, he was a mountain of a man in the years before it became almost commonplace for linemen to exceed 300 pounds — an intimidating force with "superhuman strength," according to Jones, who told the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s that "[a] lot of the plays I made were because he or the others would make the sacrifice."

Olsen modestly asserted that the "Fearsome Foursome" would have been successful in any era. "We could all run," he said. "The other thing we had going for us was a rare chemistry. There was also a very special kind of unselfishness."

He was a special kind of person. It is uncommon these days to find an athlete who graduated from college before moving on to professional football, but Olsen was named one of the nation's top students during his senior year at Utah State, and he earned his master's degree in economics while he played pro football.

Maybe it was due to the values he learned growing up in a Mormon household. Maybe it was a quality that was born in him. But, whatever the source, his many accomplishments made him someone that any parent would want to see his/her child idolize.

He was a winner. Even if he didn't win championships.

Rest in peace, Mr. Olsen.

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