2012 Super Bowl Recalls NFL Legend, Mesothelioma Victim Merlin Olsen

Painting of Los Angeles Rams Merlin Olsen

The New York Giants beat the New England Patriots on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLVI, but the world’s biggest sporting event also brought to mind an NFL legend who never played in one.

Merlin Olsen was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams. He never played in a Super Bowl, but he appeared in 14 Pro Bowls and was a TV analyst at Super Bowl XXIII.

Olsen died of mesothelioma in 2010. His cancer is believed to be caused by asbestos exposure stemming from multiple jobs including construction work and drywall.

Mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lungs, affects over 3,000 people per year, including other notable American athletes, celebrities and icons. Because of the highly aggressive nature of the disease, even the toughest athletes aren’t always able to stop the cancer’s difficult prognosis.

Successful Career, Successful Life

Mesothelioma is often considered a blue-collar disease because it is often contracted through occupational exposure to asbestos, and many of the at-risk occupations are blue-collar ones. When it came to his playing career, Olsen was decidedly blue-collar.

With the Rams, Olsen was a member of the Fearsome Foursome, a four-man defensive front that controlled — and many times dominated — games. Rosie Grier, Lamar Lundy and Deacon Jones were Olsen’s three teammates on the front. (Like Olsen, Jones is in the Hall of Fame. Grier became famous outside of football when he tackled Sirhan Sirhan after his assassination of Robert F. Kennedy following a hotel speech in California in 1968.)

Olsen played in the NFL for 15 seasons after being in the first round of the NFL Draft. Unlike today’s era of celebrity-like NFL superstars like Tom Brady or Eli Manning, Olsen played during a time when professional athletes received modest paychecks and were truly revered for their toughness. Prior to playing professionally, he played three years at Utah State University, where he was a two-time All-American.

On the field, he was undoubtedly a defensive star. Beyond setting records, he only missed two games during his 15-season professional career. Olsen’s career spanned from 1962 to 1976. Off the field, he was just as much as a superstar.

After playing, Olsen became a broadcaster and color commentator on NBC for events like Super Bowl XXIII, the 1980 and 1988 Rose Bowl games and countless other notable games. He worked alongside broadcasting legends Dick Enberg and Charlie Jones and was a regular part of NFL coverage.

In addition to commentating, Olsen was also known for his role on the TV classic “Little House on the Prairie.” Olsen played Jonathan Garvey, alongside Michael Landon, appearing on the show regularly.

His acting career extended to another role on the show “Father Murphy,” which aired for two seasons. His career proved successful on multiple fronts as he also went on to become a pitchman for multiple products, companies and organizations.

Fighting Until the Very End

Olsen’s mesothelioma diagnosis came in 2009. Because the cancer is directly linked to asbestos exposure, which often results from the negligence and liability of companies, the Olsen family proceeded with legal action.

The famed defensive tackle understood that this was another fight worth fighting. The original lawsuit involved 25 defendants, with companies including NBC Studios, NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox Film Corp., Georgia Pacific, Sherwin-Williams, Lennox Corp., and others. lawsuit document

In September of 2011, his lawsuit was settled with multiple companies who were eventually deemed responsible for his asbestos exposure. He did not live to see the closure of his case. He died in March of 2010, mourned by family, friends, teammates, sports fans and mesothelioma patients alike.

Olsen’s battle on the football field is reminiscent of his battle with cancer. Despite the fact that he may have lost, anyone who has ever watched him play football, seen him on TV or worked with him through various charities, already knows that he was always a winner.

Enberg was cited in a USA Today article commenting on the life of Olsen, exemplifying the words that many felt about the famed star.

“God doesn’t create perfect men. But he came mighty close when he brought us Merlin Olsen.”


Mark Hall joined the Mesothelioma Center as a writer in 2011. Prior to joining the content team, Mark graduated from the University of Florida and then spent several years writing about business, entrepreneurship and technology for various online publications.

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