Another great one has left this little house when it was announced that Merlin Olsen died Wednesday night at the age of 69 from mesothelioma.
Olsen had a Hall of Fame football career, spending all 15 of his NFL seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, earning Pro Bowl berths after 14 of those seasons as a card-carrying member of the "Fearsome Foursome." Then he became a TV star with leading roles in "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy" and was the softspoken, eloquent spokesman for FTD Florists.
But the reason he’s worthy of newyorkjets.com mention is because from 1977-91, he was an NFL network analyst. And since this bearded bear of a man worked AFC games through 1989, he became one of the most recognized television voices for Jets fans. In that span, no one sat in the network analyst’s chair for more Jets games than the 28 that Olsen worked. Only Bob Trumpy, John Brodie and Len Dawson provided color on as many Sunday afternoons.
Marty Lyons, the Jets’ radio analyst, played in many of those games, as a member of the "New York Sack Exchange," that Olsen called, and he remembered that Olsen’s humanity was not a Hollywood fiction.
"The interacting I had with him was always about the game of football, the Jets, the opponents, always casual conversations," Lyons said. "Then once I retired, I’d run across him and he always remembered who I was. He didn’t have to do that. I was just another player playing a game that he was broadcasting. But he always took time to show respect.
"He was just a true gentleman. And watching him play, his style of football, I think that set him apart from a lot of other players of that era. It’s just a tremendous loss."
No broadcaster is feeling that loss more today than Dick Enberg, who was Olsen’s play-by-play partner in the NBC booth from 1978-88. In fact, Enberg visited with Eric Allen and me at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center for a Jets TV segment in the days before he worked the Jaguars game for CBS in November. He was the first I’d heard say that Olsen was ill.
"Not many people know that Merlin’s going through a real rough time now," Enberg said. "They’ve discovered he has lung cancer and it goes back to the ‘asbestos days’ when he worked as a young guy. He’s going through treatment now.
"Merlin was my first network colleague and partner, and a great one. In fact, it’s a nice compliment that more often than not I’ll be in a public place and someone will come up and say, ‘You and Merlin Olsen, that was maybe one of the best teams ever.’ And it’s all due credit to Merlin, who was an Academic All-America. I’d like to think I outworked the young guys in preparation, but Merlin always outworked me."
Together they dropped in on some of the most memorable games of that Jets era, back when Klecko, Gastineau, Lyons and Salaam looked as if they might be able to lead the Green & White back to the organization’s first Super Bowl since Joe Namath’s heyday.
Enberg-Olsen called the Jets’ 1982 playoff win over the Los Angeles Raiders, as well as the Mud Bowl loss at Miami in the AFC Championship Game the next week. They teamed up to describe the 13 touchdowns, including the four Ken O’Brien-to-Wesley Walker long-distance TD connections, in the Jets’ wild 51-45 triumph over the Dolphins in 1986.
"He cared deeply about people, especially those that shared the game of football with him," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (himself a Jets intern in 1983, when Olsen had five Jets games) in a statement. "Merlin was a larger-than-life person, literally and figuratively, and leaves an enormously positive legacy."
And for those of a certain age who listen closely,a few calm, thoughtful, well-researched Olsen observations about the Jets and the NFL can still be heard in the mind’s ear.
Tags: Marty Lyons, Sack Exchange, Wesley Walker
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