When Robert “Robbie” Lynn Olsen was in middle school, he recorded his uncle at the end of his voice mail saying, “This is Merlin Olsen, and I approve this message.” As the youngest of Merlin’s 45 nieces and nephews, Robbie is finishing his last year at Utah State University, just like his uncle did more than 50 years ago.
“Being able to go to the student-athlete center and see an entire wall filled with memorabilia from my uncle, it makes you feel really good,” Robbie said.
Merlin Olsen is an National Football League Hall of Famer, was selected to play in the Pro Bowl for 14 seasons, starred in TV series "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy," and also worked as a sports commentator for NBC and CBS.
“The fact that he attended Utah State and went on to accomplish all the great things that he did, I think is really great,” Robbie said. “There’s a legacy there.”
But Merlin’s legacy didn’t just start as a young college student. According to Merlin’s younger brother Phil, the legacy Merlin left behind began in the first house on Canyon Road in Logan.
In 1946, after moving 18 times in eight years, Merlin’s parents returned to Cache Valley, planting their feet with their nine children in a three-bedroom house. Both USU graduates, Merlin’s parents, Lynn and Merle, opened their one-bathroom home to their neighborhood and more.
Phil remembers their father, a soil science professor at USU, bringing home students for dinner and holidays, and their mother, an elementary education graduate, tutoring their football teammates. “We had nine of us, but my mother raised half the neighborhood,” Phil said.
In the winter, Merlin and his brothers shared their home with ice skaters from the park. Merlin’s youngest brother and Robbie’s father, Orrin, wrote in an email that their mother would put down sheets of plywood leading from their front door to the bathroom, allowing ice skaters to walk in while wearing their skates. After ice skating all day, Phil said the Olsen brothers would “tromp” straight to the dining room table for dinner. They went almost every day during the winter months.
About five years ago, the Olsen home was torn down and turned into a small public park known as Lynn and Merle Olsen Park.
After graduating from Logan High School, Merlin turned down Stanford to attend USU, where he graduated with a bachelor’s in finance in 1961, and a master’s in economics in 1971. It was at Utah State that Merlin met and married his wife, Susan Wakley, in 1962. They later had three children, Nathan, Jill and Kelly.
Ross Peterson, who went to USU with Merlin and later served on the university’s foundation board with him, said Merlin was very involved in campus activities. Merlin was an honor student, a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity, ROTC, and lettered three years in defensive tackle.
“He was just a natural, big, strong leader,” Peterson said. “He could have been successful at anything, not just because of his brain power, but his will to do well.”
Merlin’s will power was demonstrated early on when, in ninth grade, he tried out for the basketball team and didn’t make it. The basketball coach told Merlin he was not cut out for athletics and should get into the arts instead. “He wasn’t perfect,” Phil said. “He was a normal guy. He made his mistakes, he had foibles and he would be the first one to admit that.”
Instead of letting his failure prevent him from achieving his goals, Merlin worked hard to accomplish great things. “He just kept trying and was very determined, focused and was wiling to put in the effort to where he wanted to be,” Orrin said.
That hard work and determination paid off. In 1961 he won the Outland Trophy for the best college lineman that year. As the first Aggie picked in the first round of the NFL draft, Merlin played defensive tackle, jersey no. 74, for the Los Angeles Rams from 1962 to 1976.
In 1962, Merlin’s parents traveled to California to watch him play for the Rams. Phil said it was his parents’ first time attending a professional football game.
Playing against the Baltimore Colts, the Rams were losing by a substantial margin. While Merlin was sitting on the bench, his father tapped him on the shoulder and explained they would be leaving early to beat traffic. Suddenly, Merlin realized he was the only one from the Rams defense not on the field. As he sprinted out to his team, “he got about halfway out there and he realized there was someone running along right beside him,” Phil said. “He turned and looked, and it was our Dad. Merlin stopped and said, “Dad you can’t be out here.” And so my Dad said, “Oh my goodness, I thought the game was over and we were going out to shake hands with the other players from the other team.”
In the 1970s, Phil joined Merlin to play for the Rams and Orrin was drafted to play one season for the Kansas City Chiefs. “It’s the only time in NFL history that brothers played side by side, so that was special,” Phil said. “When Orrin was playing in the middle of the 1970s, it’s one of the few times in NFL history that three brothers were all playing at the same time.”
Following their football careers, Merlin and Phil worked together for 12 years as NBC Sports commentators. “We did over 100 NFL games together. We did 11 Rose Bowls, three Super Bowls and two Fiesta bowls, and we were business partners for 35 years,” said Phil.
From 1970 to 1988, Merlin, who appeared in the 1969 John Wayne film "The Undefeated," also took to acting more seriously, playing the role of Jonathan Garvey in "Little House on the Prairie" and starring as the main character, John Michael Murphy, in "Father Murphy," which lasted two seasons.
“I was watching one of the 'Father Murphy' segments where, in that series, he’s helping in an orphanage and he takes a couple of the boys fishing,” Orrin said. “I’ve been fishing with Merlin many times and it was fun to see him just acting naturally with these boys as he was helping them have a good experience in the outdoors. It was just the way he was with his own family, his grandchildren, and his nieces, nephews and others.”
Though Merlin enjoyed football and fame, he never forgot his family or his alma mater. Through the years, Orrin said Merlin would send home boxes of clothes he didn’t need any more. “I think I was probably 40-something and I was still getting boxes of stuff every once in a while from Merlin,” Orrin said. “You’d think you’d grow out of that, but I still enjoyed getting Merlin hand-me-downs, even in my 40s.”
Peterson said Merlin continually gave money to the USU athletic program and the school of business, and donated to student scholarships. Every summer for eight years, Merlin and Phil hosted the “Olsen Brothers All-Sports Camp” at USU. They brought 250 to 300 boys, a few girls, NFL players and coaches together for a week to teach and learn about football, wrestling and track.
“He exemplified throughout his life the values he developed from living here and being from here, and never forgetting the place,” Peterson said. “The concept of loyalty and giving back was huge to him.”
After years on the receiving end of Merlin’s generosity, his alma mater announced during a men’s basketball game in 2009 that the university would give back to him. The playing surface at what was then known as Romney Stadium, would be named Merlin Olsen Field, and a larger-than-life statue of Merlin would be erected at the stadium's southeast entrance.
Merlin personally asked Blair Buswell, a Hall of Fame traditional sculptor and long-time friend, to make his monument — the first Buswell had ever done for the state of Utah. “We decided on the expression and how he wanted to be portrayed,” Buswell said. “I said, what kind of expression do you want? Do you want to bite someone’s head off? He said, 'No, I want to be happy I’m there cause that’s my hometown. That’s where I grew up. I want to be proud that I was an Aggie.'”
At the time, Merlin was going through chemotherapy treatments for peritoneal mesothelioma, a cancer in the lungs. Before the sculpture was finished, Merlin passed away on March 11, 2010 at the age of 69. “He really felt like he had lived his life and had done the kind of things the he wanted to do,” Phil said.
To finish the statue, Buswell had Orrin pose in his old football gear to capture the Olsen forearms and calves. “I really felt honored to be able to stand there and kind of represent Merlin in that way as he put in the final touches on the arms, legs, hands and those things,” Orrin said. “It was a neat thing.”
Now, six years later, Merlin’s statue stands tall, welcoming thousands of Aggies each football season to Maverik Stadium.
“It’s cool to be able to point to something that’s tangible and physical, that’s a reminder of something that a member of my family has accomplished,” Robbie said. “I hope that I might be able to accomplish something of equal value.”