SALT LAKE CITY — Merlin Olsen wasn't just a former All-American football player at Utah State. He was the face of the university, its most famous alumnus.

No matter how many years passed and how many athletes followed, people never forgot him. Nor will they. Last December, the university announced the Romney Stadium field would be named after him.

Olsen died Wednesday after a fight with cancer. His last public appearance was in December, when he appeared during halftime at an Aggie basketball game, the crowd chanting "Aggie Legend!"

That, he was. He gracefully played the part of Jonathan Garvey on the popular TV show "Little House on the Prairie" and the title role in "Father Murphy." He did commentary for NFL broadcasts and appeared in three films.

Meanwhile, he dominated for 15 years as part of one of football's most famous combinations, the Los Angeles Rams' "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line.

You might say people knew him from the (Utah) mountains to the (Little House on the) prairies, to the (Pacific/Atlantic) oceans, white with foam.

Olsen was from a more modest era. He arrived well before the end-zone dance or the post-tackle shimmy, playing from 1959 to 1961 at USU. When later hired by NBC to do football commentary, he wasn't about to wave his arms and shout to make his point. That would have been beneath him.

"I don't think I ever, in all years I've known him, saw him lose his temper," said Tom Larscheid, the former USU running back who played with Olsen. "It's true. He had such wonderful self control."

Throughout his life, Olsen stayed true to his nature. His acting parts had dignity, as did his commentaries and, of course, his game. As ferocious as he was, he never would have considered taunting a quarterback he had sacked.

He merely terrorized them by his presence.

"He was not a showboat of any kind," said Larscheid. "His play did the talking."

Maybe he was too smart for taunting. An Academic All-America, as well as a first-team All-America as a player, he is one of 17 people in both the National Football Foundation athletic and academic halls of fame.

He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Kappa Phi in 1962 with a degree in finance, almost single-handedly wiping out the stereotype of the brutish, dim-witted lineman. Larscheid called him "the poster boy" for what a student-athlete should be.

He was strong, sensitive, articulate and smart, not necessarily in that order.

"About as good a person as they come," said Jazz assistant coach Phil Johnson, who was a USU basketball player when Olsen played football. "Very brilliant, very smart, yet just a very down to earth guy. To talk to him, you wouldn't have known he had done anything special."

Olsen was named to the USU All-Century team and awarded male athlete of the century honors at the "100 Years of Utah's Greatest Sports Memories" ceremony in 1996. The 1961 Outland Trophy winner was voted into the football Hall of Fame 21 years later. He was also named to Sports Illustrated's all-time NFL team.

You name the award, he won it.

He and Johnson were even on one of the last LDS All-Church basketball championship teams. Johnson was working on his masters degree at USU one winter, and Olsen, who by then was playing football for the Rams, was in Logan for the off-season.

"Merlin was very proud of that (church) championship," said Johnson. "He would tell a lot of people that he would rather talk about that than his football achievements."

It would have been hard to tell such success was coming. Olsen was awkward as a kid, all hands and feet. His ninth-grade basketball coach suggested he try out for drama or the school newspaper, saying, "You're never going to be an athlete."

Instead, he became the most famous Aggie of all.

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Though he was celebrated for decades and involved in numerous charitable causes such as the Children's Miracle Network, it wasn't like he needed to be at the podium.

His illness wasn't a drawn-out celebrity event, and that was surely how he wished it. He left with the same dignity he carried throughout his various careers.

It's a legacy both USU and the state will long be happy to claim.


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